Cambodian police detained 11 activists Tuesday as they broke up a rally calling for international assistance to secure the release of protesters arrested during a recent bloody crackdown, witnesses said.
Strongman premier Hun Sen faces mounting criticism by rights groups of his government's suppression of street protests seeking to challenge his nearly three decade rule.
Several prominent campaigners, including a union leader, were among those pushed into police vehicles as they tried to petition Western embassies for help in the case of 23 protesters arrested during a deadly crackdown on striking garment workers earlier this month, activists said.
"We did not commit any violence. We just exercised our freedom of expression," Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, told AFP by telephone as he was driven to a police station in the city.
"The brutal acts by the authorities will only hurt Hun Sen, not us. The international community will condemn him," he added.
Those detained also included prominent land activists Tep Vanny and Yorm Bopha, who were among five people temporarily arrested earlier this month for a similar protest attempt.
Chan Soveth, a campaigner with local rights group Adhoc, warned that Cambodia was sliding back towards "an absolute communist state".
Earlier this month police opened fire on garment factory employees demanding a minimum wage of $160 per month for their work in an industry which supplies brands including Gap, Nike and H&M, killing at least four civilians.
The 23 people detained in connection with the unrest are being held at a prison near the border with Vietnam on charges of intentionally causing violence and destroying property, according to local rights activists.
The government says the recent rallies were illegal and has indefinitely banned opposition demonstrations in the capital.
Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the 11 activists "were temporarily detained" for education on laws because they had no permission to stage a protest.
"Our authorities cannot allow them to carry out anarchic activities," he told AFP.
On Sunday Cambodian riot police broke up a prayer rally, detaining an activist for one night before releasing him.
Hun Sen has faced accusations by rights groups of excessive force against the garment workers as well as opposition demonstrators who allege vote-rigging in elections last July.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has boycotted parliament since the polls but 61-year-old Hun Sen, who has vowed to stay in power until he is 74, has refused to step down or call a new election.