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DukeEngage: Controversial Cambodian police behavior raises human rights questions 

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Pouv Sokhon, the 11-year-old daughter of one of the incarcerated women, has been the face of the “Free the 15” movement since its inception. Starlyn Matheny/Special to The Chronicle.
Despite the success of Free the 15 campaign June 27, human rights activists believe that Cambodia still teeters on the precarious edge of justice.

Wednesday saw 13 women released from prison to their families after appealing their conviction—a 2.5 year sentence for public protest—in court. The families and supporters of the women rallied on Sisowath Quay, barricading the main road along the popular tourist location, Riverside, for the duration of the trial. Although the return of the 13 imprisoned Cambodian women to their families was cause for happiness, many supporters—from Cambodians to international bystanders—ruminated on the injustice they witnessed that day.

“I am not scared and I will not stop. I know I am right and I know they are wrong. My mother is in prison and they are not afraid to beat children—I will ignore the police even if they hit me,” said Pouv Sokhon, the 11-year-old daughter of one of the incarcerated women.

She has been the face of the movement since its inception for her vivacity and daring.

The 13 women were originally part of a group of 15 imprisoned for protesting forced eviction from their residences in Boeung Kak Lake and lack of the land compensation they were promised. The judges ultimately determined that the conviction would stand but their sentence would be shortened from 2.5 years to a month and three days—the amount of time they had already served.

“These women were my neighbors and their arrest was clear injustice,” said Sinaoy Sany, a fellow evictee from Boeung Kaklake who came from Siem Reap for the trial. “Their original trial took place in a day and they were given about an hour to prepare. We are worried this appeal will not be dealt with fairly but we hunger for justice.”

The morning began with peaceful protesting, a showmanship of solidarity among the affected families from Boeung Kak Lake and camaraderie with outside support, whether natives or foreigners. In attendance were several NGOs—including the Community Leader Education Center, Licado Cambodia and Canada, the United Nations Human Rights Commission and a local NGO known as Sahmakum Teang Tnaut. Each of the approximately 200 protestors present wore matching “Free the 15” shirts and remained in a closed off section of the road, blocking

traffic and rallying in the face of about 200 armed policemen.

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Peace fought with brutality

The mood immediately became somber after controversial behavior on the part of the Cambodian police. A vehicle transported the women from a correctional facility to the courthouse at approximately 8:30 a.m. The women’s children stormed the police barricade in an attempt to reach their mothers.

“When the children started pushing through the line of policemen, they were beat back,” said Thul Kosal, legal advisor for the Housing Rights Task Force. “This is one of the first instances of police brutality against children that Cambodia has seen in a long time.”

Peavsoey Srous, the pregnant, 24-year-old sister of one of the women on trial that morning, was among the onslaught of children. During the confrontation, a policeman kicked her in the stomach. The severity of her condition became quickly apparent and she was rushed to the hospital: around 10a.m., it was reported that she lost the child.

“This is the second baby that has been lost in these sorts of peaceful rallies protesting the Boeung Kak evictions,” Sany said. “This time, the NGOs have decided to go against the single officer as the culprit, not the force as a whole. They will check video footage… [and] find his policeman identity number. This time we cannot let it go like last time.”

A representative from Licado confirmed the statement, adding that the human rights organization would be involved in any ensuing prosecution of the police officer. The winning lawyer defending the 13, Hom Sunrith, was also from Licado.

Charged by the morning’s events, but still unfazed, the children and other supporters protested from 7 a.m. until the verdict was released around 1 p.m. Upon learning the news of the miscarriage, the protesting devolved into tears and angry shouts at the police. The positive energy returned when two men arrived on the scene with the peace-award winning monk Loun Savanth.

The two men in adorned costumes circled through the protestors, raising their spirits. Savanth recorded the day’s events in his continued effort to use technology and media to disseminate information about human rights issues.

“The garb they are wearing is from our Buddhist religion. The man is wearing red to act as if he is the king of ghosts,” Sany said. “The king of ghosts acts as a judge of everyone’s life, whether good or bad. He is trying to scare the police to remind them that they will face judgment one day.”

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Another man walked through the crowd and sprinkled the protestors with locus petals bathed in water, as a blessing. In earlier protests, he said, the water was used in self-defense from the tasers the police used without cause, to deter the electric charge before it reached the individuals.

At one point, the policemen put on full body gear, combat helmets and riot shields before advancing towards the crowd. Their ultimate goal was to remove a megaphone attached to a protestor vehicle that was amplifying chants and announcing updates on the trial.

Their actions were met with resistance and the conflict became aggressive when the police began pushing the adults back and forcibly attempting to remove the megaphone from their hands. At that point, the children made a powerful display by lining up between the adults and the policemen—the police stepped back immediately, more hesitant to repeat the morning’s aggression against children.

Ultimately, the police fell back and the court released the verdict. The crowd erupted in celebration in the city streets when they heard the news but soon progressed to the prison to welcome the women as they were released.

“I feel so happy. I find it difficult to find the words to show it. I cried when I found that I had my mother back,” Sokhon said, handing her megaphone to a woman nearby as she was lifted onto the shoulders of the fellow children involved in the protest.

Ongoing struggles for human rights

According to Kim Laurent, a human rights activist who attended the trial, there were three defense lawyers, three judges and one prosecutor. The deliberation only took 15 minutes and though the trial was public, the decisions of who was let in and who was barred seemed completely arbitrary.

“It is clear to us that the court is not independent and fair and does not protect the rights,” said Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “We have been involved with the issue since it began in 2007 and we have seen many human rights violations.”

In a demolished village less than a year ago, the police targeted a man and beat him in a way that “would be police brutality by any standards, international or Cambodian,” Virak said. A video of the instance was placed on YouTube and incited significant backlash. Rather than investigating the issue, the police simply removed the video evidence from the Internet.

“It is a very sad state of affairs but it is not hopeless,” Virakn said. “This is a rare case of people fighting back. They have nothing to lose. That makes this different.”

Virak noted that the case of the pregnant woman would be investigated because under the law, the police have a positive obligation to ensure the safety of the people, which they failed to do in this instance. It can be considered a gross excess use of force and will not be ignored, he added.

Although the protestors danced and cheered in front of the prison, awaiting the release of their family and community members 7:30 p.m., they do not consider their fight over.

“My mother and I will not stop fighting until they give us the land to live on that they promised when they first started building over our home,” Sokhon said. “We will not give up.”

Chinmayi is currently in Cambodia with Duke Engage working on the Housing Rights Task Force. She was in attendance of the rally.


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