A court in Cambodia on Friday ordered the release of two of 23 people arrested in the aftermath of a deadly police crackdown on a workers’ strike in the capital last month, raising hopes that the remaining detainees may also be freed.
Judge Leang Samnath of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered 17-year-old Yorn Sokchea, a minor, and Bou Sarith, 27, discharged from detention following a closed door hearing.
Last month, the court denied bail to all the 23 who were arrested after a Jan. 3 shootout by security forces during a strike by garment workers demanding higher minimum wages.
The crackdown left five people dead and wounded several others.
A court is scheduled on Feb. 11 to hear an appeal by the other 21 against the decision to deny them bail. They had been charged with causing violence and damage to property.
Leang Samnath did not explain why he suddenly decided to order the two men released Friday.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokhuna told RFA’s Khmer Service that family members of the two detainees had received the court’s orders to free them and were traveling to the facilities where they are being held to present them to the wardens and secure their release.
All 23 people were detained in Kompong Cham’s remote Correctional Center 3 (CC3)—also known as Trapaing Plong prison, which rights groups have labeled “among the harshest prisons in Cambodia.”
Yorn Sokchea was initially held at CC3, but had been transferred to a separate juvenile detention facility.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, told RFA that Friday’s court decision could lead to the release of the other 21 people in detention.
“This is a good sign” ahead of the bail hearing, he said.
Also on Friday about 100 activists, monks, and civil society workers gathered in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh to hold a Buddhist prayer ceremony asking for the release of the detainees, despite a ban on public gatherings put into place following the January violence.
Authorities looked on, but did not take action against the gathering.
Thida Khus, of local nongovernmental organization Silaka, said the purpose of the ceremony was to seek justice for the people who remain in detention.
“We pray that the sacred spirits will move the government officials and judges to take pity on them,” she said.
Unions and workers for Cambodia’s garment and footwear industries have been demanding that the government raise minimum wages to U.S. $160 a month and improve working conditions, as well as release the 23 detained in connection with earlier labor protests.
At least three of them are rights defenders Vorn Pao, Theng Soveoun, and Chan Putisak, and most of the group consists of young garment factory workers—many under the age of 30.
All 23 had faced up to 18 months of pretrial detention and up to five years’ imprisonment as well as fines from U.S. $1,000 to $2,500.
Last month, hundreds of activists and monks marched to the diplomatic missions of seven governments to deliver petitions calling for pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to free the 23.
Earlier this week, 11 prominent unions announced plans to hold a march on Feb. 10 in defiance of the ban on demonstrations and to deliver petitions demanding the increase in wages and the release of the 23 detainees.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.