Armed with a giant photograph of her jailed husband, Dos Kimteang went to the U.S. Embassy on Friday knowing that the day’s protest could be her last.
The outings have become regular since her husband was sent to prison in August on incitement charges for allegedly organizing protests against the jailing of popular union leader Rong Chhun, who is also locked up on incitement charges.
But while the fear of being arrested is very real for Kimteang, it pales in comparison to the fear of what might happen if her protests are ignored and her husband remains behind bars for much longer, she said.
“With his imprisonment, all his projects have been suspended and there is no income,” she said, referring to the family’s interior decoration business.
“I already sold our car because I didn’t have money to pay back the banks – next I will have to sell the house,” Kimteang, 40, told CamboJA.
Kimteang’s husband, Chhour Pheng, is one of dozens of activists currently imprisoned and awaiting trial on incitement charges, many of them with varying degrees of affiliation to the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party.
A group of wives of men held in pre-trial detention have become known as the ‘Friday Women’ for their weekly protests, which have been mostly peaceful until the arrival of authorities, who have been accused of using excessive force to shut them down.
When Pheng’s trial began last week, he told the court he’d had little to do with the CNRP since it was dissolved in 2017 and denied having a part in organizing protests for union leader Chhun.
According to his wife, Pheng had been busy working to pay off a $40,000 loan taken to start their business– and that the loan, which is only about half repaid, could drag the whole family under if he remains in prison much longer.
“I face hardship in providing for my family,” said the mother of three. “There is no income and I have to pay about $2,000 to the banks every month.”
And she is not alone. Cambodia has the highest average microloan in the world, at about $3,370, more than double the country’s GDP, human rights groups Licadho and Sahmakum Teang Tnautsaid in a report last year.
With their breadwinners locked away for uncertain periods awaiting trial – many on unspecific “incitement”-related charges that have been decried by human rights groups – the families of jailed activists have spoken about being driven into debt that they may never escape.
“With him gone, it’s like we lost our rice pot,” said Cheng Sreyny, whose husband, Ton Nimol, was among three people arrested at a small protest outside the Chinese Embassy in October, where rights workers and journalists said they were harassed by authorities.
With three children to take care of, she has had to abandon her side business selling secondhand clothes to factory workers.
And her husband, whose income from driving a tuk-tuk used to help support the family, has become a financial burden.
“I need to give him $30 or $40 each for every week when I visit him in prison,” she said.
Sreyny called on the government to show pity and release the jailed husbands of the Friday Women, but so far, those pleas have fallen on deaf ears, with a series of trials scheduled to go ahead in the coming weeks.
Justice Ministry spokesman told CamboJA that the hardship faced by families like Kimteang’s and Sreyny’s was regrettable, but their complaints should be directed at exiled opposition leaders who he said was ordering followers to break the law.
“We have sorrow related to their livelihoods, but the law is the law – we can’t use their livelihoods as a reason to overlook their mistakes,” he said.
“Their husbands have been punished due to those groups,” he added, referring to the leaders of the CNRP, who are accused of various plots to topple the government.
Human Rights Watch has called on Cambodian authorities to stop harassing and forcibly dispersing family members protesting the detention of political activists.
The protesters themselves have petitioned foreign embassies in Phnom Penh and the United Nations Office High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) calling for intervention.
On Saturday, the OHCHR made public a letter sent to Cambodia’s foreign minister “concerning the arrest detention, intimidation, surveillance, threats and excessive use of force against Cambodian human rights defenders in relation to peaceful demonstrations against the detention of fellow human rights defenders and activists.”
The letter, sent in November, also addresses “the criminalization of the means by which human rights defenders carry out their work, inhibiting their ability to report on and advocate against human rights violations in Cambodia,” the group said in an email.
The Foreign Ministry is yet to respond to the email, the UN experts said.
Meanwhile, Pheng and 14 co-defendants in his incitement trial face an uncertain future, with the court yet to set a date for a resumption of hearings.
The mass trial of more than 130 people charged in relation to CNRP leaders’ failed plans to return to Cambodia in 2019 will resume on Thursday, with the trial of union leader Rong Chhun to commence on Friday.
The ongoing detention of dozens of people that Human Rights Watch and other advocacy groups have called “political prisoners” is more than just a burden on their families, said Licadho deputy director Am Sam Ath.
“It is also a burden on society – when they can’t afford to repay debts, they will sell their property, family members will quit school or migrate to find work,” he said.
“There is only one way to end this crisis: All Khmer politicians must consider the interests of the nation and people,” he said. “And stop using people as political tools.”
Security is likely to be tight around the trial of Rong Chhun on Friday, but Kimteang and the ‘Friday Women’ remain fixed on their mission.
“I will continue to struggle, even if authorities intimidate or scuffle with us at our street protests,” she said.
“We must continue, even though there is little hope.”