A Cambodian appeals court refused bail on Tuesday to 21 workers and human rights activists arrested following a deadly government crackdown on a workers’ strike in the capital last month, prompting accusations from rights groups that their case smacked of political interference.
In a closed-door hearing at the Court of Appeals in Phnom Penh without any of the detainees present, judges Khun Leanmeng and Seng Sivatha refused bail on the grounds that the 21 “might compromise security and social order” if released.
“The case is still being investigated, and there are not enough grounds to grant the request to release the 21 people,” they said, despite a deluge of appeals from local and international groups for their release.
The 21 were arrested after a Jan. 3 shootout by security forces during a strike by garment workers demanding higher minimum wages in a crackdown that left five people dead and several others wounded.
They are accused of causing intentional violence and damage to property and face up to up to five years’ imprisonment, as well as well as fines from U.S. $1,000 to $2,500.
Outside the Appeals Court, some 200 activists and supporters of the detainees protested the decision despite a ban on public gatherings in the capital following the crackdown.
A mother of one of the 21 detainees cries as she holds a photo of her son while protesting outside the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh, Feb. 11, 2014. Photo credit: RFA.
“This is very unjust. My father is a patriot, and he didn’t commit any mistake,” the son of one of the detainees, rights defender Vorn Pao, shouted after hearing the ruling.
Lawyer Sam Sokea, one of ten of the detainees’ lawyers present at the hearing, said the 21 would appeal the decision in the Supreme Court as the judge had not provided enough grounds to show that the detainees would be a danger to stability if released.
“We lawyers will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court because this is an inappropriate decision,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Two others arrested with the 21 were discharged from detention following a closed-door hearing on Friday, though authorities gave no reason for their release.
Local rights watchdog the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) condemned Tuesday’s ruling, saying it was the result of political interference aimed at curbing dissent.
“The decision to deny bail to all but two of the people arrested in early January further indicates that these arrests have never been anything more than an attempt by the [Cambodian government] to silence its critics,” CCHR president Ou Virak said in a statement.
“It also further shows the extent to which the judicial system in Cambodia is flawed and how incapable it is to make decisions free of political interference,” he said.
“This decision is a further attack on freedom of assembly and expression in Cambodia, where the message has already been made clear that people are not allowed to speak out for their rights.”
Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho, another local rights group, said authorities should be more concerned with investigating the soldiers who shot protesters in the crackdown than with the protesters themselves.
“It’s shameful that 21 workers and human rights defenders have remained in jail for over a month because they took part in a strike while those responsible for the killing of four workers remain at large,” she said in a statement condemning the arrest.
Held in Kampong Cham
The detainees, some of whom have staged a hunger strike, are being held in a remote high-security facility in Kampong Cham province—Correctional Center 3 (CC3), which rights groups have labeled “among the harshest prisons in Cambodia.”
Prison director Kea Sovanna told RFA he had not received orders to transport the detainees to Phnom Penh for the hearing, and that he did not have a means of transportation to get them there.
Upon their arrest, the detainees were held incommunicado and denied access to medical treatment for several days, rights groups have said.
Bann Sina, mother of detainee Kun Sambathpiseth, said she wanted her son to be released so she could care for injuries he sustained in the crackdown.
“My son didn’t commit any mistake. I want the court to please release my son. I want to take my son to treat his injuries,” she told RFA.
Chief Prosecutor at the Appeals Court Ouk Savuth could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.