Court Concludes Two Trials Against 23 Garment Protesters

Two high-profile trials involving 23 men accused of taking part in a pair of violent garment worker protests in early January ended Thursday after five days of hearings at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, with verdicts due next week.

Of the 23, union leader Vorn Pao and nine others were arrested on January 2 at a protest for higher garment sector wages that turned violent when protesters and soldiers, called in to protect the Yakjin factory, began pelting each other with rocks.

Over five days of hearings that ended Thursday after a marathon 12-hour session, the prosecution sought to paint Mr. Pao as the main culprit in the violence, accusing him of inciting the protesters to attack the soldiers. The defendants have all accused the soldiers of throwing the stones first.

Much of the day’s testimony from both Mr. Pao and the soldiers focused on what the union leader did or did not say to the crowd on January 2 and the tuk-tuk Mr. Pao drove to the scene.

Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Colonel Chou Eng, who led the unit of elite Brigade 911 soldiers deployed to the protest, insisted that the workers threw the first stones and that Mr. Pao’s tuk-tuk was found packed with rocks after it was seized.

He said Mr. Pao incited the workers to violence with his words, but could not recall exactly what was said.

Mr. Pao and the other defendants were all beaten by soldiers during their arrests at the protest, in some cases severely. Throughout his questioning Thursday, Mr. Pao complained that he was suffering from the aftereffects of his beating and at one point fell to the floor in a dizzy spell, prompting an early recess for lunch.

Video footage of the scene shows soldiers relentlessly beating workers who put up no resistance. But Col. Eng on Thursday insisted that his soldiers were only acting in self-defense.

“When there’s a confrontation and someone attacks us, we attack back,” he said. “The soldiers defended themselves. When they [workers] threw things or attacked, we had to attack or throw things back.”

Backed up by witnesses of his own, Mr. Pao again told the court that he went to the scene only to urge both sides to refrain from violence. He denied loading his tuk-tuk with rocks and accused the soldiers of planting them.

“I am the victim, not the suspect, and I did not incite people to protest,” he said.

In a related trial in another room of the courthouse Thursday, hearings wrapped up with closing arguments in the trial of 13 men arrested at a garment worker protest on January 3 at which military police shot dead at least five people.

Throughout the trial, police and military police testifying for the prosecution told the court of how they were attacked unprovoked with rocks and crude Molotov cocktails by “anarchists.” Many said they were injured and have demanded thousands of dollars in compensation.

None of them could identify any of the accused as the perpetrators, however. Photographs and video footage presented in court showed young men throwing rocks and burning bottles, but did not depict the defendants.

Lawyers for the 13 men urged the judge to keep that in mind.

In his own closing arguments, deputy prosecutor Top Chhunlong still failed to present any evidence against the accused, but argued that they bore collective responsibility for the riot and ought to be convicted for being able-bodied young men present at the protest.

“This event occurred collectively, and the state’s control of the area was taken over by a group of anarchists,” he said. “I think our authorities could not just arrest them [without cause], but our authorities arrested people who had a lot of energy, like them.”

Verdicts in both trials are scheduled to be issued on May 30.

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