The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said Tuesday that the country’s judiciary may be under pressure to victimize the political opposition after party leaders appeared in court for questioning over recent protests against Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Prosecutors at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court quizzed CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha about claims they fueled unrest that led to a deadly police crackdown on a strike by garment workers earlier this month.
A few thousand supporters stood outside the courtroom Tuesday during the closed-door hearing, where a key union leader, Rong Chhun, was also questioned about the violence.
Emerging from the court building after several hours, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, who have condemned the violent government crackdowns on the protests, vowed to fight for the truth.
“The truth will bring us justice,” Sam Rainsy told the crowd of supporters. “We will continue our struggle together until all Cambodians receive justice.”
At a press conference after the hearing, Kem Sokha raised concerns that the court could be under pressure to smear the opposition, saying the court summons was “purely politically motivated.”
“After the questioning, if there is no political pressure, the case will be dismissed. If the case is under political pressure, we will be persecuted,” he told reporters.
No charges have been filed against those who appeared at the court hearing, which is probing whether they provoked violence in the protests.
“The deputy prosecutor said he will inform us [about any charges] later,” said lawyer Khet Khym who represented Rong Chhun, the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and the Cambodia Independent Teachers’ Association.
Rong Chhun and the two party leaders were issued their summonses on Jan. 4, as security forces dispersed CNRP protesters from their base camp in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park a day after police killed four people during a crackdown on a protest by striking garment workers.
The opposition has both backed worker strikes calling for wage increases and held its own nonviolent mass protests calling on Hun Sen to quit and to hold new elections following disputed polls in July last year.
The CNRP, which has boycotted parliament over the polls, claims Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) stole victory in the election through fraud.
Hun Sen 'won't step down'
In a public address on Monday, Hun Sen rejected the calls for his resignation, vowing to fulfill his responsibilities as prime minister throughout his whole term in office.
“I won’t step down,” he said, saying he had been elected constitutionally.
“I will be responsible in my job. I am not only the prime minister for the CPP but the prime minister of all Cambodians, [including those] who are asking me to step down.”
Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia from self-imposed exile in France shortly before the elections after being given a royal pardon for charges that he said were politically motivated.
His return reinvigorated the opposition, which denied the CPP a two-thirds majority in parliament, according to official results.
CNRP protests drew tens of thousands to the streets in recent weeks and posed a major challenge to Hun Sen’s government alongside the strikes.
Workers return to garment factories
The workers’ strikes, which were focused on a demand for a U.S. $160 per month minimum wage, brought hundreds of factories in the garment industry, a key national currency earner, to a halt.
Factories lost a total of about U.S. $200 million during the strikes, but production at nearly all factories has now returned to normal, industry representatives told foreign diplomats at a briefing Tuesday.
Most workers have returned to work and nearly all factories have restarted operations since the Jan. 3 crackdown, said Van Sou Ieng, President of the Garment Manufacturer Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents factory owners.
The briefing—attended by diplomats from Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, England, France, and the E.U.—included a screening of a video showing workers destroying factory property during the strikes.
Van Sou Ieng said labor unions had not acted in accordance with the law in the strikes.
Rights groups have condemned the crackdown on the workers’ strike, which left nearly 40 workers injured, as the worst state violence against civilians in Cambodia in years.
In connection with the strike—and worker unrest a day earlier at another factory near the capital—authorities arrested 23 people and have since accused them of stirring up violence and causing damage to property.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.