The Court of Appeal on Tuesday denied bail to 21 workers and activists who were arrested and placed in a maximum security prison last month following the government’s deadly suppression of minimum wage protests in the garment sector.
Representatives of nine garment worker unions plan to meet today to organize a strike in response to the denial of bail for the detainees, while lawyers for the 21 said they will file an appeal with the Supreme Court this week.
None of the 21 were present in court for the bail hearing.
“We ruled to uphold the municipal court’s ruling,” said Presiding Judge Nhoung Thol.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court decided last month to deny bail to a total of 23 detainees, who have yet to stand trial, from the strike protests, citing the alleged risk that the detainees posed to society and the need to question them further.
On Friday, a municipal court judge granted bail to two of the imprisoned protesters, including Yon Chea, 17, the only minor in the original group of 23.
National and international human rights group have deplored the government’s severe treatment of the 23, which has included denial of access to adequate medical care, lawyers and family members.
More than 100 monks, protesters and family members of the 21 prisoners gathered outside the courthouse Tuesday morning in advance of the judges’ decision, which was handed down in a closed-door hearing shortly after 11 a.m.
Standing outside the courtroom, Prak Sovannary, the wife of detainee and workers’ rights activist Vorn Pao, broke down in tears.
“The government is so brutal that it hurts its own people,” said Ms. Sovannary after being escorted outside the court by a group of women from the former Boeng Kak lake community.
“We will continue searching for justice since we are not happy with the decision,” she said, adding that her husband was innocent of any wrongdoing.
Mr. Pao was taking part in a demonstration calling for a $160 minimum wage outside the Yakjin garment factory in Pur Senchey district on January 2 when soldiers from the elite 911 paratrooper unit, armed with metal bars and batons, violently broke up what was until then a peaceful protest.
Mr. Pao and 10 others were severely beaten by the soldiers, detained and then brought to Kompong Cham province’s Correction Center 3.
Thirteen more protesters were arrested on January 3 outside the Canadia Industrial Park after military police opened fire on stone-throwing demonstrators on Veng Sreng Street, killing five and injuring at least 40.
When word of the Appeal Court denial reached people waiting outside the court, a number of protesters pressed in on the court’s metal gate and relatives of the accused began sobbing.
“We really need them back,” said Thoeun Thy, the wife of imprisoned garment worker Hoeun Da. “How come they don’t punish the perpetrators who killed the people, but punish and detain the innocent people?”
Ny Chakrya, chief investigator for local rights group Adhoc, said that the Appeal Court decision provided further evidence of the lack of independence within the country’s judiciary.
“The court continues to detain them as a strategy to use the 21 as hostages in the political deadlock,” Mr. Chakrya said.
A number of local and international rights groups also issued statements condemning the Appeal Court’s ruling, including the International Federation for Human Rights, Adhoc, Licadho, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and the Netherlands-based Clean Clothes Campaign.
About an hour after judges announced the decision, dozens of protesters marched down Sisowath Quay to Preah Ang Dangker shrine opposite the Royal Palace, where they took part in a prayer led by monks from the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice.
About 100 riot police soon entered an adjacent garden, where they stood waiting until But Buntenh, head of the Independent Monk Network, crossed the street in the direction of the Royal Palace.
Speaking through a microphone attached to a small speaker, But Buntenh addressed the riot police who had lined up to block his path, pledging to set himself on fire in front of the Royal Palace if the 21 prisoners are not released.
But Buntenh, along with a dozen monks and a dozen protesters from the Boeng Kak community, continued to face off with police until about 200 additional riot police arrived and started to push the protesters back across the street to the Preah Ang Dangker shrine.
A group of two dozen municipal security guards, wearing black motorbike helmets, were eventually deployed to sweep out the remaining protesters, including monks.
By 1 p.m., the area around the shrine was clear and riot police were driven away on trucks as the security guards gathered inside the prayer building to eat lunch.
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said that nine non-government aligned unions would meet this afternoon to prepare for another round of strikes in protest of the continued detention of the 21 workers and activists.
“Once we reach our decision, we will give information to authorities regarding where and when we will hold the nationwide strike,” Mr. Thorn said.