Poang Sarath was asleep at his home on January 3 when a standoff between striking garment workers and security at a nearby industrial park in Phnom Penh’s west turned ugly.
According to a statement obtained by the rights group LICADHO, the 26-year-old had been resting at his home in Mohaleap Village after working a night shift as a private security guard.
His wife says several garment workers entered Sarath’s room seeking shelter from the violence.
Security forces followed them to his house and demanded Sarath open the door. When he refused, they fired live rounds into the wall, kicked down the door and arrested him, she said.
He was severely beaten during the arrest, and when his family visited him more than a week later he was bleeding from his lip, with pain and bruising all over his body.
In two separate crackdowns on January 2 and 3, 23 garment workers, unionists and bystanders like Sarath were arrested and transported to the notorious CC3 prison north of Phnom Penh. They were held incommunicado, and reportedly without adequate medical care, for almost a week, and most of them remain incarcerated at what is regarded as one of Cambodia’s harshest prisons.
On Saturday, the Phnom Penh Municipal court held an unannounced bail hearing and released two of the detainees – Bou Sarith and Yon Sok Chea – on bail.
But hopes that as many as 18 of the men would also be released on Tuesday were dashed when the presiding judge at Phnom Penh’s Appeals Court denied bail, saying their release would “disturb public order.”
The 23 men have been charged with intentional violence and intentional damage, both with aggravating circumstances.
The men still detained at CC3 could remain there for up to 6 months before trial, and if convicted all 23 men face up to 5 years’ imprisonment and fines.
While they have since received some medical treatment, rights groups remain concerned about the health of the detainees. Sixteen of the men began a hunger strike on Sunday, and many sustained injuries during their arrest, with reports of bruising, severe swelling and cuts to the head, arms and legs.
At least three of the men were reportedly beaten unconscious; one of whom – union leader Vorn Pao – is still recovering from a major operation late last year.
Pao has warned his wife he is unlikely to survive in prison.
“[The police] caught him and he was beaten unconscious … [they] poured water on his face to make him conscious to continue to beat him,” she said.
His wife told LICADHO she believes police targeted him because of his role as a protest leader. As the President of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), Pao had been instrumental in drumming up support for the demonstrations.
Factory owners have accused protestors of damaging property after they set up burning barricades outside one factory and were alleged to have thrown rocks and molotov cocktails at security.
Many of those arrested are husbands and brothers of garment workers themselves, as the industry employs 90% women.
However, Sarath’s wife says neither she, a tailor, nor her husband were involved in the demonstrations, part of a two-week long strike over a wage dispute. She says he cries when he thinks about his newborn son, and she wants to see him released soon.
“He did not join the demonstration, he is just a private security guard [but] he was beaten and put in prison,” she said.