Eyewitness Accounts Detail Assault on Montagnard Christians

HRW: ''Cambodian police used excessive force when they forcibly deported 101 rejected Montagnard asylum seekers to Vietnam from a Phnom Penh refugee facility.''

Cambodian police used excessive force on July 20 when they forcibly deported 101 rejected Montagnard asylum seekers to Vietnam from a Phnom Penh refugee facility, Human Rights Watch reported earlier this week.

The New York-based group said Monday that the predominantly Christian Montagnards could be at risk of further mistreatment in Vietnam, as there is no proper international monitoring system in place to ensure that returnees are free from intimidation, detention or abuse by Vietnamese authorities.

According to Washington, DC-based Refugees International, the group had fled from the Central Highlands in Vietnam to Cambodia in 2004 after a reported Easter weekend crackdown. Targeted particularly for following an unsanctioned form of evangelical Christianity, Montagnards have been subject to harassment, land confiscation and other forms of discrimination. They are often dubbed "America's forgotten allies" for siding with the United States in the war.

In May, HRW reported that the Vietnamese government had banned their form of Christianity and charged that it was not a religion but a separatist political movement.

According to HRW, the July 20 deportation began at 5:30 a.m. with Cambodian police setting up roadblocks to bar journalists and Cambodian and United Nations human rights monitors from a refugee facility in Phnom Penh known as Site 1. Site 1 has primarily housed asylum seekers whose refugee claims had been rejected by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Numerous eyewitness accounts received by HRW reported that dozens of riot police had entered the facility at 6:00 a.m., some with AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders. The asylum seekers were seated together in the courtyard of the facility for what witnesses later said was a prayer meeting.

As police begin to order people to get on the buses, the Montagnards “passively resisted” instructions to board the buses by sitting down and linking their arms together, eyewitnesses said. After the asylum seekers ignored an order to board the buses, the police made no attempt at negotiation, they stated. Instead they began to beat and drag people out, one by one.

Eyewitnesses said that the Montagnards at no time acted violently toward the police, but instead were dragged out of the facility by their arms, legs and, in several cases, by their hair, and pushed them on to buses.

Police reportedly beat at least one woman with a baby strapped to her back, and kicked other Montagnards as they were seated. They beat individuals with batons and used electric prods to inflict shock, even as they were boarding the buses.

“There was no excuse for using electric batons or beating unarmed individuals engaged in peaceful civil disobedience," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The use of unnecessary force shows just how little the Cambodian government cares about police discipline and about the well-being of the Montagnards.”

HRW has called on the Cambodian government to undertake an independent and impartial investigation of the incident and discipline or prosecute as appropriate officials who authorized or used excessive force.

According to HRW, Cambodian and international human rights groups and the Cambodia Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights have long pressed the government to cease the use of electric batons by police.

“Electric batons are dangerous weapons and should not be used for crowd control,” said Adams. “Despite widespread criticism, the Cambodian government continues to abuse peaceful protestors with these weapons.”

Moreover, HRW said that the police’s use of excessive force violates an agreement Cambodia signed with UNHCR and Vietnam in January 2005. The agreement provides for the return to Vietnam of recognized Montagnard refugees who refuse to resettle abroad. It also provides for the return of Montagnard asylum seekers whose refugee claims have been rejected by UNHCR. It provides that UNHCR will work with the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam to “bring back [to Vietnam] in an orderly and safe fashion” and “in conformity with national and international law” those Montagnards who do not agree to either resettle abroad or “voluntarily” return to Vietnam.

“Cambodia, through the behavior of its police, has violated international human rights principles, its own laws, and the agreement it signed with UNHCR and Vietnam,” said Adams. “This was not a safe return; it was an unnecessarily violent one.”

As the largest human rights organization based in the United States, HRW has called on the Vietnamese government to provide UNHCR and other independent monitors with free and unfettered access to all Montagnards who have been returned, whether with their consent or forcibly.

The group stated that this would be necessary to discourage any mistreatment of returnees, and to enable UNHCR to provide information to other potential returnees in Cambodia who need to be able to make informed decisions about whether to return.