The wives of Cambodian opposition activists jailed on “incitement” charges were roughed up by police as they staged a protest Friday outside the U.N.’s human rights office in Phnom Penh, demanding that the government drop the charges against their husbands and release them.
The group of about 10 women — known as the “Friday Wives” for their weekly rallies on behalf of their husbands from the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) — demanded the release of their spouses following reports that the men had been infected with the coronavirus in prison.
Several police officers roughly manhandled the women as they tried to pry large posters with their husbands’ images from their hands during the protest in the capital’s Chamkar Mon district, the women said.
Prum Chantha, one of the protesters, said it was beyond belief that police resorted to manhandling them while breaking up the group in front of the U.N.’s office.
“They dared to abuse us in front of the U.N office… This is very unjust for the family members of politicians,” she said.
The women submitted a petition to the U.N.’s human rights office to intervene, saying that they were concerned about the health and safety of their husbands because they have been banned from communicating with them for the last three months while the pandemic has spread rapidly in Cambodia.
They complained that their husbands are at risk for contracting the virus because they are being held in overcrowded prison cells and don’t have enough food to eat.
The women have said that authorities should allow them access to their detained spouses during the COVID-19 pandemic so that they can monitor their health.
Dos Kimteang, another protester, told RFA that the women did not violate any laws by gathering because they did not impede traffic or disrupt social order, and that they adhered to the Health Ministry’s guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“We never provoked any social chaos,” she said. “Please don’t abuse us and then accuse us of violating the law.”
‘They gathered without permission’
A coronavirus outbreak has surged unabated through Cambodia’s prisons in recent weeks amid a nationwide outbreak. As of Friday, the government reported a total 33,075 confirmed coronavirus cases, including 886 news ones, and 242 total related fatalities.
San Sok Seiha, spokesman for the Phnom Penh municipal police, said police prevented the women from gathering because they did not request official permission to assemble.
But when RFA asked him to cite the regulation that requires people to ask for permission to hold public gatherings, he refused to elaborate.
“They gathered without permission,” he said. “This county has laws, so authorities are obligated to implement them. We can’t let a few people to provoke problems in Phnom Penh city.”
On Friday, 20 civil society organizations and unions issued a statement repeating a call for the government to release all prisoners of conscience in light of the growing number of COVID-19 infections.
“In view of the reports of mounting COVID-19 cases within Cambodian prisons, compounded by prison overcrowding, we call on the RGC [Royal Government of Cambodia] to release all nonviolent prisoners of conscience as a mitigation measure to minimize the risk posed by the spread of the virus,” the statement said.
Soeung Sen Karuna, spokesman for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) who monitored the Friday Wives protest, said that the police crackdown on the women in front of the U.N’s human rights office indicates a further decline of human rights in the Southeast Asian nation.
“This is yet more evidence showing that … the authorities should consider their actions and coordinate them, so that people can express themselves and their demands,” he said. “It would give the government a better image.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.