At least seven people were arrested in Phnom Penh over protests to demand the release of prominent union leader Rong Chhun who was charged over statements about the Cambodia-Vietnam border demarcation.
However, only three of them were charged with “incitement” and sent to pretrial detention at Prey Sar prison.
The arrests were made after the Justice Ministry last week warned it would act against activists who defy a ban on holding protests to demand the release of Chhun.
Sam Sokong, one of Chhun’s defence lawyers, said yesterday a total of seven people had been arrested since last week related to protests to call for Chhun releases. He said he would defend the three who were charged.
Sokong said the three were charged with “incitement to commit a felony or to disturb social security” under Article 495 of the Criminal Code. If found guilty, they face up to two years in jail and fines of up to $1,000.
He identified them as Chhou Pheng, Chum Puthy, who were charged on Wednesday, and Sar Kanika who was charged Friday.
Sokong said two former activists of the court-dissolved CNRP Ouk Sam Aun and Chhin Sovannara were among the seven who were released and they were released after signing a contract to stop protesting.
He added authorities also arrested Chum Huot and Chum Hour of the Lover Environment and Society Association, before releasing them after they also had signed contracts.
“They just protested, calling for the release of Rong Chhun,” Sokong said. “I think their arrest
is not correct because all Cambodians have the right to peaceful assembly. It is a violation of their rights.”
He said the protesters were exercising their right to “freedom of expression” which is guaranteed by the Constitution.
“Their gathering is not against the law at all,” Sokong added.
He also said he and Chhun’s group of lawyers has filed a request to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday, seeking their client’s release on bail.
“However, until now, we have not received a decision order made by the court whether to release him on bail or not,” Sokong added.
Phnom Penh Police chief Lieutenant General Sar Thet recently confirmed the arrests, saying these people attempted to gather more people to protest for Chhun’s release.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said yesterday that Cambodian authorities have strong evidence to arrest and charge these people.
“It is normal in a democratic and rule-of-law system that when the authorities find a clear basis for elements that constitute a crime, they will take legal action.” Malin said, “For their [those charged] part, if they feel that their actions are not a crime, they can legally defend themselves.”
Since Chhun’s arrest, activists have held street protests and marches seeking for his release, including gathering in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court where they confronted
local police as well as Prampi Makara district security guards.
On Friday the activists also submitted petitions, signed by 15 associations and unions to several embassies in Phnom Penh, including the EU, US, UK, France, Thai, German as well as the International Labour Organisation.
However, Malin, yesterday said submitting petition to foreign embassies is not the way to solve issues.
“To submit petitions is their right, but it has no influence on the court decision and it is not a legal way to defend an accused,” he said. “The only way is for them to participate in the court procedure and provide strong evidence to exculpate him.”
Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council was recently arrested and charged with “incitement to commit a felony or to disturb social security” over a remark he made concerning border issues.