The year is 1945 and Cambodian men are packed into traditional longboats, ready to race each other in an event that “has been going on for more than 1,000 years” at the annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh.
Police and prison officials are refusing to disclose the whereabouts of more than 20 people, including union leaders and political activists, who were arrested during protests late last week, family members of the detained and rights workers said Monday.
Twenty-three protesters were charged with the destruction of property under aggravating circumstances after protests by striking garment factory workers were suppressed by military police on Thursday and Friday.
Moeun Tola, head of labor affairs at the Community Legal Education Center, said a team of defense lawyers from his organization had also been repeatedly denied access to or information about the prisoners, including a 17-year-old who was arrested at Veng Sreng.
“Cambodian authorities appear to have given up any semblance of democracy, rule of law or justice,” Mr. Tola said.
Prak Sovannary, the wife of prominent union leader Vorn Pao, who was among those whom rights groups say were beaten and arrested by paratroopers at a protest on Thursday, said that authorities had refused to disclose where her husband is being held.
“My husband’s health is poor. The troops hit him on the place where he recently had an operation for his kidney problem…[and] I’m concerned for his safety,” Ms. Sovannary said.
Mr. Pao was beaten and detained by members of the 911 Brigade who were deployed outside a garment factory. He was charged Friday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Local rights group Licadho says it has been denied repeated requests to access the prisoner to provide basic health care.
Pang Duong La, who lives near Veng Sreng Street, where military police firing AK-47 assault rifles, killed five protesters and wounded more than 20 others on Friday, said he had been searching for his brother since he was arrested during the clashes.
“I haven’t known his whereabouts since he was arrested by the armed forces who broke our door and took him,” he said, adding that rights workers had accompanied him to the municipal court.
“When I arrived at the courthouse, they had already taken my brother away, and we have been left completely in the dark about his whereabouts since,” Mr. Doung La explained.
Municipal court investigating Judge Keo Mony confirmed on Sunday that 13 protesting strikers had been arrested at Veng Sreng on Friday and charged on Saturday, adding only that “the Ministry of Interior is now taking care of them.”
Kuy Bunsorn, director-general of the Ministry of Interior’s general department of prisons, said he had no idea where the 23 prisoners are being held.
“I don’t know anything specific about them,” Mr. Bunsorn said. “The reports sent from prison directors across the country only refers to the number of prisoners they detain and release each day.”
Chan Soveth, senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, said he believed the 23 people had been taken to a maximum-security prison in Kompong Cham province that is notorious for poor treatment of inmates.
“A confidential source has told me that the 23 arrested people are being held at Correctional Center 3 [CC3] in Kompong Cham,” he said.
Kea Sovanna, director of CC3, declined to confirm or deny that the 23 prisoners were in his jail.
Rupert Abbott, Cambodia researcher for Amnesty International, said authorities were bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Cambodia is party to, to allow inmates to contact family or lawyers when arrested.
Am Sam Ath, a technical supervisor with Licadho, which is providing defense lawyers for some of the prisoners, agreed that authorities were openly flouting the law and U.N. conventions in their refusal to disclose the whereabouts of the prisoners.
“By law, defense lawyers have a right to know where their clients are being detained, but the court, prison officials, and even the prison’s director-general will not tell the relatives of the detainees or their defense lawyers,” Mr. Sam Ath said.
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