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After Jail, Activists Struggle in Daily Life

Posters printed with a detainee Vorn Pao, a Boeung Kak lake activist, is holding by protesters stage in front of the Appeals Court during a rally, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, March 24, 2014. The rally took place on Monday demanding the release of 21

Posters printed with a detainee Vorn Pao, a Boeung Kak lake activist, is holding by protesters stage in front of the Appeals Court during a rally, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, March 24, 2014. The rally took place on Monday demanding the release of 21

One year after a deadly government crackdown on labor and opposition demonstrations, activists who were jailed say they have had a hard time since their release.

In part, they are dealing with the psychological trauma of abuse at the hands of police, they say. And in part, they have had difficulty finding work. Some say they struggle now with chronic health issues, after their treatment in detention.

Twenty-three activists—many of them union leaders or workers—were arrested in the January 2014 crackdown, which also left at least five people dead, when government security forces, including police, military police and elite units swept in on protesters, beating them and arresting them, following months of unrest.

Among the 23 detained was Vorn Pao, president of an NGO called Idea, who was beaten and jailed. At a recent interview at his office, Vorn Pao described his experience. He spoke bravely at first, but as he began to recount his story, his voice began to choke up. In chronic pain, he shifted himself occasionally in his seat, at times holding back tears as he talked. “I was humiliated,” he said. “I felt as worthless as an animal.”

On Dec. 29, 2013, Vorn Pao, who is 39 years old, helped organized members of Idea, which advocates for rights for workers of the informal economy, in a general strike, as workers across the garment sector were calling for a higher minimum wage. They continued a general strike into after New Year’s Day, gathering in front of the Yakjin Factory, in Phnom Penh. On Jan. 2, 2014, special security units were deployed to break up the demonstrations. Vorn Pao was severely beaten by members of the elite paratrooper Unit 911, detained and put trial the next day.

“They beat me with batons and iron rods until I was unconscious,” Vorn Pao said. In and out of consciousness, he could feel waves of pain. His back hurt; his face hurt. He was sure he would die, he said. He was detained at a nearby facility until a hearing the next day.

Ultimately, he and the 23 detained activists from the crackdowns were moved to remote Correctional Center Three, in Kampong Cham province. For a time, their location was kept secret from their families and lawyers. There, Vorn Pao was made to undress in front of the others. Conditions were harsh, he said, and humiliating. One of the detainees tried to kill himself, but the others stopped him. The activists were not released until May, 2014, five months after they were jailed.

Even then, though, they weren't exactly exonerated. Vorn Pao is facing five years and one month of a suspended sentence, and he must pay the court a fine of 8 million riel, nearly $2,000. Vorn Pao said he is appealing. He said the memory of his imprisonment stays with him. “I lost all my dignity as a human being,” he said. “The prison was not for human beings.”

Vorn Pao said he will not be deterred, though, in working for labor rights. “I’ll keep protesting,” he said. “I’ll teach a new generation what I’ve experienced.”

Meanwhile, other activists say they too are struggling since their release. Yorng Som Oun was working in a factory on Veng Sreng Street, where he made $140 per month, before the protests and his arrest. Now he can’t find work.

“I don’t have a job now,” he said in an interview. “And neither do the others. I’ve applied to about 10 work places. I’ve lost confidence. I don’t know what to do.”

In the end, Yorng Som Oun lost much, when what he wanted was $20 per month more in wages. “I wanted $160 per month,” Yorng Som Oun said. “I was put in jail instead.” He has had it tougher than even Vorn Pao, he said. “It’s very hard for me. My wife now has to work alone, to feed me and a kid.”

Human rights groups say the charges against the activists were baseless and that they should never have been arrested. It was only international pressure that saw them released. But now they are struggling to deal with the terms of their cases.

“They were sentenced from three to four to five years in jail,” said Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor for the rights group Licadho. “Even though they are outside of prison, they were still convicted. This is a political issue. They were arrested and inflicted with pain, while they were helping protest over a [pay] raise. Those who inflicted them with pain have not been punished, yet these 23, who were calling for $160 as a raise were jailed.”

One year later, a new minimum wage went into effect, up from $100 per month to $128—far lower than workers had asked for. The activists are still dealing with their cases, and their treatment by police, though labor unrest has settled down. Orders are down too, though, as the unrest made buyers nervous.

The activists’ cases must now go through the Court of Appeals. You Bunleng, chief judge at court, said the cases will be dealt with quickly. “If they are short-sentence cases, the court will make it as fast as possible.”