Authorities in Cambodia on Tuesday blocked opposition lawmakers from visiting nearly two dozen protesters held in a remote jail near the border with Vietnam since their arrest a month ago during police crackdowns on striking factory workers.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmakers, accompanied by family members of the protesters, had traveled to Correctional Center 3 (CC3) in Kampong Cham province to meet with the detainees, but were prevented from entering the complex by 200 military and police officers armed with sticks, said member of parliament Son Chhay.
“I am sad that authorities displayed weapons when we only came to visit the prisoners,” the lawmaker told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Displaying weapons is never a good decision and this is giving a bad image to the country’s leaders.”
The CNRP officials and family members of the detainees had hoped to bring supplies to the 22 being held in CC3—also known as Trapaing Plong prison, which rights groups have labeled one of “among the harshest prisons in Cambodia.”
But prison guards said they were concerned about the security of the facility, which they said holds around 1,000 inmates, and denied the group entry.
Son Chhay and his followers refused to leave the gates leading into CC3, demanding that the warden explain his decision not to admit them.
The warden later appeared and handed Son Chhay a warrant from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court which said that no visitor—not even family members—could meet with the detainees, as the investigation against them is still pending and could be “compromised.”
The group of CNRP lawmakers and family members eventually left the area without any incident.
The 22 held in CC3 were arrested on Jan. 2 and 3 after clashes during a strike in the capital Phnom Penh by workers demanding higher salaries. The 23rd protester who was arrested is a juvenile and is being held in a separate detention facility.
At least three of them are rights defenders Vorn Pao, Theng Soveoun, and Chan Putisak, and most of the group consists of young garment factory workers—many under the age of 30.
Yon Chea, 17, was among those being held at CC3, but was recently transferred to a facility for juveniles, opposition sources said.
Ten of the 23 were arrested on Jan. 2 in front of Yak Jin factory on National Road 4, comprising Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun, Chan Puthisak, Chhim Theurn, Yong Sam An, Reth Roatha, Nakry Vanda, Lun San, Teng Chany, and Sokun Sombath Piseth.
All appeared before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Jan. 3 and were charged with causing violence and damage to property.
Thirteen more were arrested on Jan. 3 during clashes in which at least four men were shot dead by security forces and at least 39 injured near the city’s Canadia Industrial Park.
They consist of Mam Piseth, Neup Sokhourn, Phang Tren, Ty Sinoun, Heng Ratha, Pang Vanny, Pheurn Da, Cheurn Yong, Ros Sophoan, Prong Sarath, Chea Sarath, Yon Chea, and Bou Savith. They were brought to court in Phnom Penh on Jan. 4 under the same charges as the 10 others.
All 23 face up to 18 months of pretrial detention and up to five years’ imprisonment as well as fines from U.S. $1,000 to $2,500.
Last week, Ath Thon, the president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said Cambodia’s garment factory workers will return to holding strikes if the government fails to make a decision on their demands for a doubling of minimum wages and refuses to release the 23 detainees.
He effectively set a Feb. 5 deadline to the government for a decision on the union’s call for minimum wages to be raised to U.S. $160 a month from U.S. $80 currently and for releasing the protesters.
In January, hundreds of activists and monks defied a ban on demonstrations in the capital to march to the diplomatic missions of seven governments to deliver petitions calling for pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to free the 23.