A human rights group on Thursday urged authorities in Cambodia to end the prosecution of six trade unionists accused of stoking violent clashes between protesting workers and security forces, calling the case against them “politically motivated.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch said prominent activists Pav Sina, Chea Mony, Art Thun, Rong Chhun, Mam Nhim, and Yang Sophon had been scheduled for a court hearing on Sept. 12—just five days before unions have scheduled the start of a new campaign for an increase in the minimum wage.
“Cambodian authorities are pursuing trumped-up charges against labor activists in an apparent attempt to get them to abandon demands for better pay and conditions,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“This is just the latest government effort to scare activists and the political opposition into dropping plans to use protests to advance their causes.”
Prosecutors have accused the six unionists of aggravated violence and destruction, threats of destruction, and obstruction of traffic during violent confrontations between protesting workers and factory and government security forces in the Veng Sreng area of the capital Phnom Penh between Dec. 25, 2013 and Jan. 3, 2014. The accused face up to 14 years in prison.
Human Rights Watch’s allegations were immediately dismissed by the Cambodian government, which said the prosecution of the six was based on the country’s laws and had nothing to do with the government.
“Cambodia is a state governed by rule of law,” Ministry of the Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Thursday.
“The court is an independent institution. This issue is not involved with the government—it’s all about the judicial system.”
Cambodian workers had made increased wages a central demand of their strikes that led to a deadly security crackdown in January, when Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a ban on all demonstrations, including those by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and civil society groups.
On Jan. 2, 2014, security forces used lethal force to enforce the ban, opening fire with assault rifles and other firearms at demonstrators over two days, killing at least seven people and injuring dozens of others.
Human Rights Watch noted that Cambodia’s government had previously brought “baseless” charges against others linked to the protests, including the May conviction of 23 workers and activists who were sentenced to suspended jail terms after being held in “harsh conditions” for more than four months.
The 23 had been accused of responsibility for the Jan. 2-3 violence, it said, “even though no evidence was presented to connect any of them to it.”
No charges against security force members
Human Rights Watch said that Cambodia’s judiciary lacks independence and serves the interests of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), adding that no charges have been filed against security force members responsible for killing and wounding protesters in January.
“Hun Sen has yet again promised big reforms and claims he has suddenly become aware of the need to resolve long-festering socioeconomic disputes, yet the courts he controls are still being used to persecute activists,” Adams said.
“Cambodia’s donors should make it clear that they will not accept another round of politically motivated prosecutions and demand that these cases be dropped.”
Free Trade Union (FTU) President Chea Mony, who was among the six trade unionists summoned to the Sept. 12 court hearing, said that the charges were “purely politically motivated,” echoing Human Right Watch’s concerns that the move was meant to silence union workers ahead of the wage campaign.
“The government wants to intimidate union members because union leaders are calling for a wage increase to U.S. $170 in September,” he said.
“I am not surprised because our court system lacks independence.”
Chea Mony said that he had not yet received a summons from the court, adding that his union members had protested on their own in January and not at the FTU’s behest.
However, the Phnom Penh Post quoted Phnom Penh municipal judge Chea Sokheang on Wednesday confirming that he had already sent documentation to the six activists.
The summonses come months after the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents factory owners, filed a court complaint on behalf of 170 factories.
The Post quoted Chea Mony as saying he believed the Ministry of Labor and GMAC were pushing to remove Cambodia’s independent union presidents from power.
Reported by Vohar Cheat and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.