Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Friday upheld a decision refusing bail to 21 people arrested during a deadly worker strike crackdown, a defense lawyer said, as dozens of supporters protested outside, calling the charges against them politically motivated and demanding their release.
The top court upheld the Appeal Court’s decision denying the 21 workers and activists bail, citing their trial under way at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, lawyers said.
The 21 and two others are facing charges of “causing intentional violence” and “damaging property” during the strike and face up to five years’ imprisonment as well as fines from U.S. $1,000 to $2,500 if convicted.
“The judges said the Phnom Penh court is hearing the case,” Sam Sokong, one of the defense lawyers, told RFA’s Khmer Service. “We lawyers are very sad.”
Earlier this week, following a five-hour hearing, the municipal court put off their trial for the second time since late April, citing a need for further review of evidence. The trial is set to resume on May 20.
The 23 have been waiting to defend themselves in court since their arrest following a January crackdown on an opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)-backed strike by workers demanding higher wages, which left five people dead and nearly 40 wounded.
Dozens of supporters on Friday stood outside the Supreme Court during the proceedings, shouting out their demands to free the 21 still held at Prey Sar Prison in the capital.
“Please, judges and prosecutors, do you hear the voices of the wives and relatives of the 21 who are waiting for their loved ones to return home?” one of them was heard shouting.
Heang Sokha, the wife of defendant Chan Puthisak, asserted that the court’s decision was influenced by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and that the 23 have been unfairly linked to the party’s ongoing political deadlock with the CNRP over disputed elections in July.
“The court is very unjust. As a wife, I am waiting for him to return home to reunite with our family,” she said.
“The court is biased toward the ruling party and the rich. For ordinary people like us, the judges don’t deliver justice.”
The CPP and CNRP had resumed negotiations recently to end the political stalemate following July 2013 elections but the talks failed to achieve a breakthrough.
The CNRP has boycotted parliament following the elections in which the CPP was declared the victor despite allegations of widespread irregularities. The opposition party had been holding protests calling for Hun Sen’s resignation until a ban on street rallies was imposed after the January crackdown.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, said that the court’s decision was politically motivated.
“The court decision is based on the current political situation—the court didn’t act independently,” he said.
“It is unknown what will become of the 23.”
Two of the 23 had received bail and were discharged from detention following a closed-door hearing in February, though authorities gave no reason for their release.
The remaining 21 were denied bail on grounds of posing a threat to public security, despite a deluge of appeals from local and international groups for their release.
They include president of the Independent Democratic Association of Informal Economy and government critic Vorn Pov, who is suffering from kidney problems and was denied bail on four occasions between Jan. 13 and April 4, despite what rights groups have said is a “need [for] urgent medical treatment.”
Reported by Den Ayuthya for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.