Union representative Suos Chantha was released from Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison yesterday after having been detained for more than seven months on what human rights groups claimed were spurious charges of drug dealing.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered Mr Chantha to serve a prison term of seven months and five days, the time he had spent in pre-trial detention, effectively setting him free on the day of his trial.
After leaving prison yesterday evening, Mr Chantha was received by delighted family members and rights workers, while monks immediately held a ceremony to bless him.
Mr Chantha said his release was a tremendous relief. “I was very excited when I was released from prison. I almost could not speak,” he said, maintaining that he been unjustly convicted.
“I am innocent because I did not commit the crime,” Mr Chantha said.
Earlier yesterday, Judge Din Sivuthy had sentenced the 24-year-old union representative to 10 months and five days in prison for illegal drug distribution, while suspending three months of the term.
“The court sentenced Suos Chantha to 10 months’ detention, but orders him to serve only seven months and five days in prison for illegal drug dealing,” Judge Sivuthy said. “There is enough evidence to implicate him.”
Mr Chantha was arrested on Nov 18 after Sen Sok district military police stopped him on the road and allegedly found small bags of methamphetamine under the seat of his motorbike.
The arrest occurred just one day after he had finalized plans to lead the defection of almost 1,000 workers at United Apparel garment factory from a pro-government union, the Independent Democratic Solidarity Union Federation, to the independent Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers Democratic Union.
Local and international rights groups, including Amnesty International, raised doubts over the charges and said they seemed to be linked to his union activities. Some said the arrest served to intimidate labor activists who considered changing unions.
During the three-hour hearing yesterday Mr Chantha, looking thin and hollow-eyed, maintained the drugs were not his and said police had not even showed him the alleged find.
Municipal military police captain Kim An told the judge he could not comment on how the drugs were found, as Sen Sok district military police had carried out the operation. No Sen Sok military police had been summoned to testify yesterday.
Witness Oun Tainglim, a worker at United Apparel, said he had seen military police kick and hit Mr Chantha during the arrest, before pushing him into a car.
Rights groups and unions welcomed Mr Chantha’s release, but maintained that he was innocent and should not have been detained in the first place.
“Even though we welcome that Mr Chantha was set free…he still did not get justice because he was found guilty,” said Ath Thorn, president of CCAWDU. He added that the court should have summoned Sen Sok district military police to provide more evidence for their accusations.
Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labor program, said, “We’re not happy with the verdict. It’s unfair for him, an injustice for him that he was charged with drug distribution.”
“We still believe his case was set up,” he said, adding that there had also been procedural errors, as Mr Chantha was held in pre-trial detention for more than six months without the court requesting an extension of his jail time.