Four labor leaders who were charged on Monday over their connection to a protest against the Capitol Tours bus company in Phnom Penh said on Tuesday that the legal action failed to account for basic facts, while advocates warned that following through with court proceedings would only stoke further unrest.
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation (CLC), Kong Athit, CLC secretary-general, union chief Eang Kimhun, and labor association leader Sok Chhun Oeung were all charged with intentional violence, obstructing public officials and obstructing a public road, according to a statement signed by deputy municipal court prosecutor Srey Makney.
The charges followed the arrests of a fired Capitol Tours bus driver Nan Vanna and labor activist Ros Siphay, who were among 45 protesters attacked by armed tuk-tuk drivers on Saturday when they attempted to block a bus from leaving the company’s depot in Prampi Makara district. Mr. Vanna and Mr. Siphay ˙have been charged with the same three crimes.
The protest was part of an ongoing campaign by 40 fired Capitol Tours drivers to get their jobs back. The drivers claim they were illegally dismissed for trying to unionize under the CLC.
While Mr. Vanna and Mr. Siphay have been placed in provisional detention, Investigating Judge Ros Piseth said on Tuesday he would summon the others to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court soon.
“We will summon the four others for questioning over the deputy prosecutor’s charges,” Judge Piseth said. “It won’t be long before we do.”
Both Mr. Thorn and Mr. Athit, two of the country’s most prominent union leaders, said on Tuesday that they were not present during Saturday’s protest and described the charges as an injustice.
“My members will defend me if the court orders my arrest. What I am accused of is the very opposite of what I do,” said Mr. Thorn, who has been the target of numerous legal complaints, mainly for his work in the garment sector.
“When [union members] have problems, we have to assist and support them,” he added. “Unions have the right to go on strike or protest, but we never advise them to create violence.”
And according to Mr. Kimhun, secretary-general of the Cambodia Transportation Workers Federation, the fact that the tuk-tuk drivers who initiated the attack had faced no legal repercussions proved that officials did not conduct a thorough investigation.
“Regarding the violence charge—I didn’t cause it and it was started by the CCDA,” he said, referring to the notoriously combative tuk-tuk drivers affiliated with the Cambodia for Confederation Development Association.
“And as for obstructing a public official, why would I do that? When police arrive, we always stay away,” he said. “I wonder if the court has even checked the video footage.”
In the hours after the violence broke out, local rights group Licadho released a video showing the tuk-tuk drivers, in matching black helmets, descending upon the peaceful protest and beating them with wooden poles and hammers.
Suth Menghy, CCDA’s vice president, told reporters on Monday that his members had been prepared for a fight, enraged that months of protests against Capitol Tours had affected their business.
Sok Chhun Oeung, president of the Cambodian Informal Economic Workers Association, said the charges against him effectively made being a bystander a crime. He encouraged the court to “find the real suspects, the ones who attacked.”
“I watched it happen—does that automatically mean I participated in the activities?”
Sokhann Yon, labor program manager at the Cambodian Legal Education Center, said multiple NGOs—including Adhoc, Licadho and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights—met on Tuesday to discuss who would represent the charged men against the “unfounded” charges.
Moeun Tola, director of labor rights group Central, said it was in the authorities’ best interest to drop the charges altogether.
“If they arrest the top leaders of the unions, I think there will be a big scandal,” he said. “I think the government is smart enough that they would not do that.”