Cambodia – Arrests and ongoing detention of human rights defenders,Messrs Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun and Chan Putisa

On 8 January 2014 the Cambodian Center for Human Rights received confirmation that human rights defenders Messrs Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun and Chan Putisak, as well as seven other individuals, are being detained in Correctional Centre 3 (CC3) in Kampong Cham Province. The human rights defenders were arrested by military police along with a number of garment factory workers and five monks, while they were protesting outside the Yak Jin clothing factory on 2 January 2014.

Vorn Pao is president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA). Theng Savoeun is a member of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC). Chan Putisak is a labour rights defender.

The arrests took place on 2 January 2014 during a strike demanding a higher increase than that proposed by the government in the minimum wage for garment factory workers. Police reportedly used excessive force against the protesters. It is further reported that Vorn Pao received an injury, possibly a bite, to the head. The five monks were released later on that same day.

On 3 January 2014, Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun and Chan Putisak were taken to Phnom Penh Municipal Court of First Instance to be questioned. They were charged under Articles 218 and 414 of the Penal Code with “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” and “intentional damage with aggravating circumstances.” The human rights defenders face up to 18 months pre-trial detention and up to 5 years’ imprisonment as well as fines ranging from USD1,000 to USD2,500.

From 3 to 8 January 2014, family members, lawyers and independent medical professionals were denied information regarding the detainees’ whereabouts and medical condition, despite the fact that there were grave concerns regarding the physical condition of the human rights defenders following the violence at the protest.

Nationwide strikes demanding better wages for garment workers have been met with violence by the Cambodian security forces. Thirteen individuals were arrested on 3 January 2014 during clashes in which at least four men were shot dead and at least 39 were injured near Canadia Industrial Park, where many clothing factories are located. The arrested protesters were charged on 4 January 2014 under the above-mentioned articles of the Penal Code.

On 6 January 2014, at 8:40am, five women human rights defenders, Tep Vanny, Yorm Bopha, Pan Chunreth, Bo Chorvy and Srong Srey Leap were arrested as they prepared to protest outside the French embassy for the release of the above-mentioned human rights defenders. They were released at 4:45pm after they signed a letter agreeing not to engage in further protests.

Front Line Defenders is concerned that the arrest and ongoing detention of Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun and Chan Putisak is solely related to their legitimate activities in defence of human and labour rights in Cambodia, in particular for exercising their right to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly. Front Line Defenders is further concerned that the recent arrests and charges brought against protesters are intended as a message to subdue the current strikes in Cambodia.

Front Line Defenders urges the authorities in Cambodia to:

1. Immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against human rights defenders Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun and Chan Putisak, and subsequently release them without delay, as evidence shows that their arrest and detention is solely motivated by their peaceful and legitimate work in defence of human rights;

2. Ensure that, while in detention, the above-mentioned human rights defenders have unfettered access to any medical treatment that might be necessary after the violent dispersal of the 2 January 2014 protest;

3. Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Cambodia are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities, including through strike and peaceful protest, without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.