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Following the arrest of prominent unionist Rong Chhun, protesters have gathered outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to call for his release. Now the government is threatening to arrest them too.
PHNOM PENH--The Ministry of Justice on Aug. 3 threatened protesters who are calling for the release Rong Chhun with legal action and told them to stop their actions immediately. Prominent unionist and member of non-governmental Cambodian Watchdog Council Rong Chhut was arrested on late on the night of July 31, now the government is threatening to arrest those calling for his release.
The Justice Ministry said that people gathering in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to demand that the release of Rong Chhun is not a legal action. “This act puts pressure on the judiciary, which may face criminal charges under Article 522 of the Penal Code of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” a statement from the ministry read.
“In this sense, the accused Rong Chhun has full rights in accordance with the Constitution and the Code of Criminal Procedure of the Kingdom of Cambodia to find and rely on one or more outstanding lawyers to defend his integrity and legitimacy, according to the law and procedure in front of [the] judiciary,” the ministry wrote.
Rong Chhun was arrested at his home in Phnom Penh after allegedly criticizing the government for their negotiations with Vietnam over the ongoing border disputes. Critics have repeatedly warned that the border negotiations have resulted in land losses for Cambodians living along the 1,270 kilometer border with Vietnam.
Following Chhun’s arrest, people gathered in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court urging the authorities to release him as he hadn’t committed any crime. He was formally charged on Aug. 1 with incitement to cause serious social unrest and could face up to two years behind bars.
On Aug. 3, 142, civil society groups and communities issued a statement strongly condemning the nighttime arrest of Rong Chhun and called on the Royal Government of Cambodia and the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to immediately drop all charges against the union leader and release him from pre-trial detention.
Chhun is currently in pre-trial detention at Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 1, where overcrowding, squalid conditions and a backlog of pre-trial detainees have been frequently condemned by rights groups.
This is not the first time that Chhun has been arrested for his activism. In October 2005, the unionist spent three months in prison on charges of defamation and incitement after being arrested for comments he had made about a Vietnam-Cambodia border agreement.
In January 2014, he was arrested again alongside ten other human rights defenders while publicly calling for the release of almost two dozen demonstrators arrested during the widespread protests that followed the 2013 national election.
“After more than a decade of harassment by authorities, this latest arrest of a respected union leader is a direct threat to every Cambodian who exercises their constitutional right to freely express their beliefs without having to fear a midnight visit by police and years lost in prison,” the statement signed by 142 civil society groups read. “We call on the government and the court to uphold their obligations to guarantee freedom of expression under the constitution and international law and immediately drop all charges and release Rong Chhun.”