The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday convicted 25 people on a raft of charges stemming from three separate garment protests, but the 22 men whose bail had been denied ahead of the trials had their sentences suspended and left the court as free men.
The verdicts bring to an end a months-long legal battle that has placed a spotlight on government efforts to suppress unrest in an industry that employs more than 600,000 people, mostly young women. The unions behind the strikes complain of unlivable wages, a lack of state protection for workers’ rights and factory efforts to limit the freedom to assemble and organize.
What began as a tense morning outside the court—where barriers once again kept protesters at bay—ended in jubilation after the verdicts were rendered just before 9 a.m., as supporters hugged each other and shouted, “We have been successful!”
It did not take long for the orders of release to be carried out. The 22 men were transported in a van from the municipal court to Prey Sar prison’s Correctional Center 1, where they were released before noon. The newly released prisoners were met by about 600 supporters and had jasmine garlands placed around their necks. They swiftly made their way by tuk-tuk in the direction of the Pur Senchey district office, only to be blocked by about 20 district security guards.
“You are dogs, you are bad people,” the marchers shouted. “You do not love your Cambodian people.”
Vorn Pao, a labor leader and the most prominent of the defendants, spoke of the international significance of the trial before being blessed by a group of monks after returning to the headquarters of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA), which he leads.
“Because of pressure from the Cambodian people, markets and international unions to improve the nation’s reputation, the court suspended my sentence,” he said.
“But I will discuss with my lawyer [about appealing the conviction], to get 100 percent justice,” he said.
The three cases happened months apart, but were part of the same wave of worker discontent. On November 12, two teenagers were arrested after lingering near the fringes of an SL Garment Factory protest near Stung Meanchey pagoda. They were accused of aggravated intentional violence, damage to public property, insulting civil servants and opposing civil servants.
One of the teenagers, 15-year-old Men Sok Sambath, admitted during the trial to throwing a number of rocks toward police as the protest unfolded into a bloody clash in which police shot dead a food vendor named Eng Sokhom. The teen, who was bailed ahead of trial, was later seen gathering pieces of scrap metal from the embers of a fire that was started by another group of men who overturned a police vehicle and set it alight.
His co-defendant, 19-year-old Vanny Vannan, was not bailed and spent six months in pretrial detention. Men Sok Sambath was sentenced to time already served, while Mr. Vannan’s three-year suspended sentence included his time spent behind bars.
“It’s an injustice,” he said as he was led away from the court. “I am innocent—I did not commit the crime as charged by the court.”
A successful campaign to rally workers to strike and protest around calls for a $160 minimum wage, which began at the end of December, was crushed by state forces in early January.
On January 2, unionists, garment workers and monks clashed with soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ elite 911 brigade outside the South Korean-owned Yakjin garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district.
Of the 15 initially detained, five monks were released and 10 were charged.
In their trial on Friday, Presiding Judge Keo Mony acquitted six of the 10 arrested at Yakjin of the charges of aggravated property destruction, but upheld the charge of causing violence for all the men. He meted out sentences ranging from between two-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years in jail. Four of the men, including Mr. Pao, were handed fines of 8 million riel, or about $2,000, each.
On January 3, military police officers opened fire on protesters on Veng Sreng Street, who were armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails, killing five and injuring more than 40.
Thirteen unionists and workers were beaten, detained and charged.
In court on Friday, Presiding Judge Leang Samnath upheld all the charges, which included intentional acts of violence and intentionally causing damage under aggravated circumstances, but handed down suspended sentences of between one and four years to the defendants, one of who was absent from the hearing.
Judge Samnath refused a claim for $237,290 in compensation sought by Sim Souyeng, the director of the Ekreach medical clinic, which was ransacked by protesters after allegedly turning away workers who had been shot by the police.
In spite of the release of the defendants, the trials themselves were condemned by legal and rights groups.
A statement co-signed by a consortium of NGOs and community groups welcomed the men’s release, but expressed “extreme disappointment at the convictions of all 25 and the heavy fines imposed on some of them, following what was to all independent observers a deeply flawed trial process.”
Chhay Chhunly, project coordinator of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights’ human rights defenders program, said she was “dismayed” by the guilty verdicts.
“The lack of any incriminatory evidence demonstrates that the verdict is based on political considerations rather than evidence. Their arrest and conviction is symbolic of a trend to repress human rights defenders and protesters by the Royal Government of Cambodia,” Ms. Chhunly is quoted as saying in the statement.
The convictions, even if the men remain free, will limit their future union activity.
In March, it emerged that the government had begun requiring union leaders to prove that they have no criminal record if they want to register new branches.
Dave Welsh, country director of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights organization, said the case highlighted flaws in a garment industry in desperate need of fundamental reforms after coming under “huge private and public pressure.”
“I think the message that was relayed privately and publicly is that any other issue, whether the minimum wage is currently in play, would be almost impossible for international stakeholders to go forward in good faith if these 23 remained in prison post trial,” he said.
That was also an “enormous issue for the international community, the investment community and trade union community,” he said.
“I would say that on one level, there is now an enormous amount of media and international interest on the plight of garment workers on the ground,” he added. “If we talk about silver linings and byproducts [of the trial], you can say that there is a huge amount of attention.”
As for moving forward, Mr. Welsh said the focus of the labor movement would likely return to the issues of an increased minimum wage and a non-restrictive trade union law.
According to the International Labor Organization and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the government must also conduct an in-depth investigation into the conduct of state forces in the three incidents.
“The confrontations resulted in five people shot dead, the death of a sixth who later succumbed to his injuries from beatings, the disappearance of one person, and injuries to scores more from the use of live ammunition and beatings, including one bystander who remains paralyzed,” they said.
(Reporting by Khy Sovuthy, Khuon Narim, Kuch Naren and Lauren Crothers)