Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Four CNRP Leaders Arrested Over Violent Protest

The Cambodia Daily

Four opposition CNRP lawmakers-elect were arrested and held at municipal police headquarters overnight after violent clashes broke out in the morning between district security guards and opposition protesters near Phnom Penh’s heavily secured Freedom Park.

National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith confirmed that the four opposition lawmakers-elect—Mu Sochua, Ho Vann, Men Sothavrin and Keo Phirum—would be held overnight at Phnom Penh police headquarters but said authorities had not decided on what course of action to pursue Wednesday.

Opposition protesters and Daun Penh district security guards fight near Freedom Park in Phnom Penh on Tuesday during a protest against the closure of the park led by CNRP public affairs director Mu Sochua. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“Let’s wait and see tomorrow morning,” Mr. Chantharith said.

The four had been held without charge at the building in Sen Sok district throughout the day for leading the protest.

Clashes broke out at about 8 a.m. on Norodom Boulevard when Daun Penh district security guards began scuffling with the protesters who had descended on the area from multiple directions to support the protest by Ms. Sochua against the closure of Freedom Park.

Ms. Sochua has over the past six months led frequent demonstrations to Freedom Park, which was shut down and surrounded by razor wire after the government on January 3 and 4 lethally suppressed growing opposition protests and garment worker strikes in Phnom Penh.

Her attempts to enter the park have often ended in bloodshed, with the Daun Penh district security guards beating her supporters and journalists who refuse to follow their orders.

Turning the tables Tuesday, the protesters, who like Ms. Sochua were wearing orange and yellow ribbons tied to their shirts, for the first time fought back after the security guards again moved in to beat protesters who refused to leave the area.

A security guard is beaten by opposition CNRP protesters Tuesday near Freedom Park. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Using plastic flagpoles and wooden sticks as weapons, the protesters isolated the notoriously aggressive district guards and forced many of them to the ground before mercilessly beating them. Some guards fled to avoid the beatings, but many were unable to escape.

One, identified as Chhay Pitou, was beaten close to the point of unconsciousness and taken with others to Calmette Hospital for treatment. The police then apprehended Ms. Sochua, Mr. Sothavrin and Mr. Phirum as they attempted to leave the park in their cars.

“In total, 37 municipal security guards were injured, of which six were seriously injured and two others are in emergency care with critical injuries,” said Phnom Penh deputy governor Khuong Sreng shortly after the clashes.

“Whenever there is violence, the leaders of the demonstration must be immediately arrested for questioning and investigation.”

At about 10 a.m., Ms. Sochua, Mr. Sothavrin and Mr. Phirum were taken to the municipal police headquarters in Sen Sok district.

Chuon Narin, the deputy municipal police chief who was in charge of the operation to clear the protesters, said the three arrested opposition leaders were not lawmakers.

“No lawmakers were arrested, police only arrested three crazy people,” he said. “Lawmakers would not act crazily at Freedom Park.”

A security guard is bloodied following a clash with opposition CNRP protesters Tuesday near Freedom Park. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

At least seven other CNRP lawmakers-elect at the protest—Mr. Vann, Long Ry, Real Camerin, Long Botta, Nuth Rumduol, Cheam Channy and Sok Oumsea —were not apprehended by the police. Mr. Vann, however, later led a convoy of CNRP supporters to the police headquarters and was then also arrested.

Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for local rights group Licadho, said a violent response from protesters attempting to enter Freedom Park was inevitable after months of being beaten by guards.

“The violent clashes occurred between the protesters and municipal security guards because the security guards have instilled the idea of violence into the protesters’ minds,” Mr. Sam Ath said. “The protesters have experienced the violence used by security guards and it has caused anger and the desire for revenge for the protesters.”

At the headquarters, about 100 riot police were deployed and occasionally tried to move journalists and rights workers away from the area until about 7 p.m., when most left on their own accord.

CNRP chief whip Son Chhay, who was not present at the protest but visited his arrested colleagues and also police officials in the afternoon, said he was under the impression the police were still investigating the morning’s protest and would arrest others.

“I met with the police commissioner and…asked them why they arrested these people,” Mr. Chhay said. “He said that they organized the demonstrations that led to the violence. I asked ‘How many of them are you going to arrest?’ And he said there will be another, Real Camerin. I think all the [lawmakers] who took part will be arrested.”

From left, opposition CNRP lawmaker-elect Men Sothavrin, public affairs chief Mu Sochua and opposition lawmaker-elect Keo Phirum stand behind police barriers after being detained Tuesday near Freedom Park. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Phnom Penh City Hall released a statement Tuesday evening condemning Ms. Sochua for having led “300 anarchic protesters to unlawfully assemble by blocking the streets around Freedom Park.”

“The Phnom Penh Municipality appeals for the competent authorities and related institutions to conduct an investigation and to identify the perpetrators and those who are responsible for the above incident for prosecution in compliance with legal procedures,” the statement said.

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche confirmed that some of the security guards who were injured by the protesters had filed complaints with the police over the outbreak of violence at the protest.

While the four lawmakers were being questioned, CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith confirmed that the protesters who fought back against the Daun Penh district security guards were legitimate supporters of the CNRP and not impostors or agents provocateurs.

“There was no third party, but it was the security guards who started the violence and attacked the protesters as they often have done before,” Mr. Ponhearith said.

“We are so sorry for the violent clash today.”

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