Kratie authorities detained and questioned 17 members of the land rights organization Coalition of Cambodia Farmers Community (CCFC) on Wednesday afternoon as the group returned to Phnom Penh by bus from a staff training workshop hosted in Ratanakiri.
At least three of the detained coalition members — CCFC’s president Theng Savoeun and senior officer Nhel Pheap and project officer Thach Hach — were held overnight and then transferred to Ratanakiri Thursday morning for further questioning, according to Ratanakiri provincial governor Nhem Sam Oeun. CCFC staff and human rights NGOs Licadho and Adhoc confirmed the three CCFC staff had been detained.
The three CCFC members “are expected to be sent to court,” Licadho reported Thursday.
Sam Oeun, Ratanakiri governor, said the purpose of the three CCFC staff’s ongoing detention was to question the coalition members about the purpose and content of the training.
“We found out and he [Savoeun] answered that what they are doing in the meeting is normal,” Sam Oeun said. “But in his [Savoeun’s] meeting, there was a lot hidden.”
Sam Oeun declined to elaborate further on the specific reason for detaining the CCFC members or to describe what he claimed was being hidden from authorities in more detail.
CCFC held a workshop in Ratanakiri from May 14 to 17 with 39 participants who were CCFC staff, some of whom also brought their spouses and children, according to CCFC official Mey Vuthy.
Police pulled 17 staff off the bus and questioned them from around 1 p.m. in the afternoon until around 10 a.m. Thursday, repeatedly asking about the content and focus of the training, said Vuthy, who said officers took turns interrogating him and others allowing no rest.
Vuthy said the training workshop was held twice a year and focused on discussions about how to strengthen CCFC’s projects and advocacy for land rights and issues affecting farmers.
“In the institution, we call it a team building program, to find out how to advocate,” he said. “The purpose is building the team and to reflect on the work of past projects, ask where are our weaknesses? Where are our shortcomings? ”
“Because they [Kratie police] saw our documents about what we discussed as a group at the hotel and they asked us why we dared to discuss openly about the current situation of Cambodia,” Vuthy explained.
Adhoc spokesperson Soeung Senkarun said that if the workshop was to discuss CCFC’s work and past advocacy projects then there was nothing illegal happening.
“If this issue is discussing [CCFC’s] history, I think that there is nothing wrong with the law,” Senkarun said.
A Licadho lawyer has requested to meet with the three CCFC staff, Senkarun added.
CCFC staff computers and some documents belonging to the organization were confiscated by police, Licadho reported.
National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun declined to comment and referred questions to Kratie and Ratanakiri provincial police, who also declined to comment.
“As I know, Kratie provincial police detained them following a request from Ratanakiri provincial police,” Khoeun said. “So you can ask Ratanakiri police.”
Ratanakiri deputy provincial police chief Im Phany said that he did not know about the arrests of Theng Savoeun and his two colleagues, while Ratanakiri police chief Ung Sopheap could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Kratie provincial police chief Oun Sobonna said that police are processing the case and following legal procedures, but also declined to provide further information on why three CCFC staff remained in custody.
Savoeun, CCFC’s president, was previously arrested in 2014 following large protests and spent 5 months in prison, according to Licadho.
CCFC has received funding from USAID as part of a coalition to promote LGBTQ+ awareness in Cambodian schools.