Union leaders say they expect upwards of 1,000 people to jam the streets around Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday in a show of support for 23 unionists, workers and bystanders who are on trial for their alleged part in violent protests in Pur Senchey district in January.
During two days of extreme violence in early January, the 23 were rounded up, beaten and arrested before being taken to the remote CC3 prison in Kompong Cham province, where they languished with poor medical care and little contact from outside the prison walls. The group faces charges of causing violence and damaging property, accusations that have been widely denounced by rights groups.
“There will be about 1,000 people coming from eight unions and other associations to show their support and see the court’s verdict,” said Pav Sina, head of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers.
“This will be the first time since they were arrested that we are able to show the 23 the spirit of our support.”
A large contingent of the supporters will be motodop and tuk-tuk drivers, according to Sok Chhun Oeung, who has stood in as head of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association while its president, Vorn Pao, has been locked in CC3 on the border with Vietnam.
“We have about 500 tuk-tuk and motodop drivers showing up at the court,” Mr. Chhun Oeung said, but added that he had little hope the 23 would be released.
“The 23 have been taken hostage as a bargaining chip in the political deadlock, therefore the court will not release them.”
While hundreds have pledged to pack the street this morning, many factory workers in Meanchey district—where the 23 were arrested—said Thursday that they would be at work as usual, whether it be from fear, hopelessness regarding the verdict, or a simple lack of cash.
“We do not expect the court will release them,” said Dyna, 49, from under a blue tarpaulin as she slurped a bowl of soup in front of the Yakjin factory where she works. Ten of the 23, including Mr. Pao, were arrested outside the South Korean-owned factory on January 2 after the army moved in to break up protests.
“I have listened to RFA [Radio Free Asia] every day. They report that international and local NGOs are calling for [the 23] to be released—but the Cambodian government does not care.”
Teng Chanthy—the sister of 21-year-old Teng Chany, who will come before the court Friday—said she would be there to catch a glimpse of her brother for the first time since January.
“Soldiers beat the workers, young and old—they did not care. It is the act of animals,” she said.
“Some of the workers from my factory [Yakjin] will go to the court and if the court does not release them, we will protest until they do.”
Likewise, Dy Vuthy, a 28-year-old employee at Canadia Industrial Park, said he would take the day off to stand in the street as the 23 go on trial. The rest of the group were arrested in or near Canadia Park on January 3, when at least five were killed and more than 40 wounded by military police after riots broke out.
“The damage is from authorities…. They destroyed the workers’ rental rooms and they chased them into their rooms and beat them. Why are the workers being charged over the destruction of property?” he asked.
“They killed us like dogs on the street and they threw bodies into trucks like dogs,” he said, adding that there would be protests to demand the release of the 23 should the court rule against them Friday.
On January 14, opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha were questioned at the court over their involvement in the deadly protests. An estimated 2,000 people converged on the courthouse to show their support.
A team of helmeted public order parapolice were on the scene that day, backed up by 13 military trucks and hundreds of military police stationed across the road from the court at Olympic Stadium.
Despite that precedent and predictions of a high turnout Friday, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said Thursday that he knew of no plans for an increased security presence near the court.