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Environmentalists released after allegedly being roughed up by Hun Sen’s bodyguards

Police in Cambodia’s Takeo province on Tuesday released a group of young environmental activists and journalists after they were allegedly violently detained earlier in the day by bodyguards of Prime Minister Hun Sen as they tried to inspect an area of a protected forest where trees had been cleared. 

The Phnom Tamao forest, located roughly 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Phnom Penh, is home to many rare and endangered species, and is the only forested eco-destination anywhere near the capital. It encompasses an area of more than 6,000 acres (2,450 hectares) and is home to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, established in 1995.

In April, media reported that the government had agreed to sell more than 1,200 acres (500 hectares) of the protected forest to Leng Navatra, a real estate company, and two other businesses said to be close to Hun Sen’s family. Later reports suggested the entire area had been earmarked by the government for development, excluding the 1,000 acres (400 hectares) that contain the wildlife center.

In a rare move this month, Hun Sen ordered an end to the clearance of the Tamao forest adjacent to the country’s largest zoo, following multiple appeals by environmental groups and members of the public.

The group of activists who were released on Tuesday said Hun Sen’s bodyguards assaulted them after they tried to inspect the area and ask local residents to sign petitions seeking clarification from local authorities regarding a fenced off 600 hectare (1482 acre) plot of cleared land that the prime minister had ordered to be replanted.

The bodyguards claimed that the activists and journalists were trespassing. They said they steered clear of off-limits areas and were on the way to a pagoda from which they could view the clearing.

Hun Vannak, one of the activists, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the bodyguards kicked him and hit him in the face. He said that a group of about 10 bodyguards forced the group into cars and took them to a nearby military camp. He said they were not told why they were being detained.

“We didn’t dare to say anything because they took us to their camp,” Vannak said. “No one could help us. I felt we were with wild people, they didn’t consider the law, they used only violence. They detained and assaulted us arbitrarily.” 

Also among the group was Hy Chhay, a journalist for the local independent news outlet VOD who, according to Vannak, was slapped in the face by the bodyguards.

The group was transferred to a police facility in Takeo’s Bati district after which they were released.

RFA was unable to reach Bati district Police Chief Chhay Keomoni for comment on Tuesday.

The bodyguards violated the constitutional rights of the activists and journalists, Nop Vy, director of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association, told RFA.

“I have observed that [authorities] respect only their orders, [not the law],” Nop Vy said. “It is wrong. Restrictions on the youths and journalists are contrary to Hun Sen’s decision to replant the trees.”

The violence against the group must be investigated, according to Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesman for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, a local 

rights group.

“This is a serious human rights violation,” he said. 

The activists told RFA they plan to file a complaint against the bodyguards. 

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.