Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday charged a union leader at a garment factory with drug smuggling after he was caught carrying packets of an unidentified substance that police believed to be an illicit drug, officials said.
However some union leaders and labor activists said the charge against Suon Chantha, 27, was suspicious, as he was arrested shortly after he led more than 1,000 of his co-workers in switching union allegiances.
Military police on Thursday arrested Mr Chantha after he left work at the United Apparel Cambodia Inc garment factory in Sen Sok district’s Toek Thla commune, according to municipal military police chief Pong Savrith.
“Police found nine small packets of drugs on the suspect’s body, but we still do not know what type of drug,” Mr Savrith said. “It was a red-handed case.”
Judge Phu Pousun said that Mr Chantha was detained at Prey Sar prison after being charged with drug smuggling but Judge Pousun declined to elaborate.
Between 500 and 600 workers showed solidarity with Mr Chantha by protesting outside the courtroom on Friday, said Bun Vanda, deputy union leader at United Apparel Cambodia Inc. “He is a good person and does not even smoke cigarettes,” Mr Vanda said.
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said that many doubts surround the case. He said that Mr Chantha had on Wednesday defected from the Democratic Independent Solidarity Union Federation for the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, and on Thursday more than 1,000 workers at United Apparel followed suit.
“It sounds to many people to be [a] set up,” Mr Tola said. “We don’t support people who traffic drugs and commit crimes against the law. But we don’t want people to be charged unjustly.”
Phong Mountry, president of the Democratic Independent Solidarity Union Federation, said he had heard of Mr Chantha’s defection but claimed Mr Chantha had not officially resigned from his union.
“I do not believe that he was involved in drug smuggling because he has worked with me for five years,” Mr Mountry said.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim and Alice Foster)