The Justice Ministry warned yesterday it would act against activists who defy a ban on holding protests to demand the release of prominent union leader Rong Chhun, who was arrested over statements about the Cambodia-Vietnam border demarcation.
This comes amid statements by some groups that they will continue holding protests to have Chhun freed.
Justice Minisistry spokesman Chin Malin said yesterday that those who continue to protest and demand the release of Chhun could face legal action from authorities.
“We just advise and remind them about the legal aspect on whether what is an exercise of rights in a democratic and rule-of-law system and what is a violation of the law,” Malin said. “If they continue to do their activities which is a violation of the law, they could be held fully responsible before the law.”
Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, was arrested on Friday for alleged “incitement” over the border demarcation issues with Vietnam.
Since his arrest, activists have held street protests and marches seeking for his release, including gathering in front the Phnom Penh Municipal Court where they confronted local police as well as Prampi Makara district security guards.
Malin’s statement is consistent with the recent ministry statement, which warned Chhun’s supporters could face criminal charges over their protest.
“Gathering people in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to demand that the court release Rong Chhun is not a legal act, but an act that puts pressure on the judiciary and those who do so could face charges for offences under Article 522 of the Criminal Code of the Kingdom of Cambodia.” a ministry statement said recently.
The ministry said in a society governed by the rule of law, the accused has full rights to defend himself in court in accordance with the Constitution and the Code of Criminal Procedure.
The statement said Chhun can find one or more outstanding lawyers to defend his integrity, legitimacy and innocence before the judiciary.
“The spokespersons of the Ministry of Justice appeal to those who are doing illegal activities, please stop your activity immediately before the authority take legal action,” it added.
On Wednesday at least two activists were injured during a scuffle with the authorities in Phnom Penh.
Since last week, ex-CNRP, members of civil society organisations, national and international unions as well as the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) have issued separate statements, calling for the immediate release of the union leader. Government officials have rejected the calls.
Chhum Hout, president of the Lover Environment and Society Association, who has been participating in protests since last week, said yesterday that activist suspended gatherings yesterday after Wednesday’s scuffle with authorities.
He said the protest had been peaceful and non-violent, adding that peaceful assembly was guaranteed by law.
“The prevention of a peaceful assembly by the authorities is a violation of the law and the arrest of Rong Chhun is very unjust,” he said. “As a Cambodian, he (Chhun) has freedom of expression.”
Despite the threat of legal action, Hout said he is committed to participating in protests with other Chhun’s supporters until he was released.
“Authorities are using COVID-19 as an excuse to suppress our rights,” he said, adding that the activists plan to submit petitions to several foreign embassies, including the US French and EU and well as the Ministry of Justice.
Phnom Penh Governor Khuong Sreng has also recently said that protests for Chhun release were made without informing authorities and seriously affected public order.
“The above-mentioned protests and demonstrations have seriously affected the normality of society, public order, traffic flow and departed from the principles of the Law on Peaceful Demonstration.” Sreng said.
He added that the demonstrations were staged against the instruction of the Ministry of Health, World Health Organisation (WHO) as well as the city hall’s measure to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 and urged organisers to respect the Law on Peaceful Demonstration and measures to prevent the pandemic.
“All rallies without prior written notice to the Phnom Penh Municipal Administration shall be considered illegal and the competent authority shall take action in accordance with the existing laws,” he added.
Sreng also instructed all 14 district governors, the municipal police commissioner, the municipal military police commander and all relevant authorities to implement his order.
Chhun was charged with “incitement to commit a felony or to disturb social security” under Article 495 of the Criminal Code. If found guilty, Chhun faces up to two years in jail and fines up to $1,000.
The charge was made after he and his activists visited the Cambodia-Vietnam border in Trapeang Phlong commune of Tboung Khmum province’s Ponhea Krek district on July 20, an area where border poles were set up.
In a statement released after his visit, Chhun said that there are irregularities in the installation of border markers that divided the border between Cambodia and Vietnam in Tboung Khmum.