Updated at 6:30 p.m. ET on 2014-05-30
A court in Cambodia on Friday convicted 25 workers and activists for instigating violence during garment workers’ strikes but suspended their jail sentences and set the group free in a widely followed case that has come under international scrutiny.
Local civil society organizations welcomed their release but called their convictions “an injustice” due what they felt was a lack of evidence, saying that their trials were “tainted with numerous irregularities.”
Twenty-three defendants linked to a deadly Jan. 2-3 strike were given jail sentences of between one and four-and-a-half years for “causing intentional violence” and “damaging property” while two others implicated in another deadly strike in November received sentences of six months and three years in prison.
Both the strikes by garment workers campaigning for an increase in minimum wages had been backed by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and led to the deaths of five civilians and injuries to scores of people.
Two dozen local civil society groups welcomed the Phnom Penh Municipal Court decision to suspend the sentences imposed on the 25 and let them free but expressed “extreme disappointment” at the convictions and heavy fines imposed on some of them following “a deeply flawed trial process.”
Four of those convicted Friday were ordered to pay fines of 8 million riel (U.S. $2,000) each for inciting the others to stage the protest.
“While we welcome the court’s decision to release [them], we have not seen justice here today,” said Heng Samorn, General Secretary of Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), whose leader was among the accused and slapped with the fine.
“They were all still convicted following trials which in fact confirmed the near total lack of evidence against them. The circumstances of the arrests and the fact that the trials were all held at the same time indicate that these cases were wholly political in nature.”
“The aim was not to seek justice but rather to try and bring an end to popular protest and make people afraid to take to the streets to claim their rights.”
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) said they, too, were “concerned about the criminal conviction” of the 25 “in view of the apparent procedural shortcomings” of their separate trials.
In a joint statement, the two organizations also expressed reservations over “the lack of evidence establishing direct responsibility of the individuals for the actions of which they were nevertheless found guilty.”
“Furthermore, in a number of cases, the evidence indicates that individuals were arrested when simply exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, while defending workers’ socio-economic interests,” the statement said.
The OHCHR and ILO called for “independent investigations and full accountability” for the violent dispersals of demonstrations.
Plans to appeal
Defense lawyer Kong Peisei told RFA’s Khmer Service that his team was considering an appeal against the convictions within a month, as stipulated by the court.
“We will hold a discussion between the lawyers and our clients to decide how to proceed,” he said.
Following his release from prison, IDEA president Vorn Pao thanked those who helped to fight for his freedom.
“I would like to thank my Khmer compatriots who supported me, as well as the NGOs and [foreign] embassies, donors and lawyers who defended us,” he told RFA.
Vorn Pao, who with 21 others had been held in detention until the court hearing Friday, had frequently complained about his health in custody. He had been repeatedly denied bail despite collapsing during one of his hearings.
He maintained his innocence following his conviction, saying that he had only acted as an observer during the strike and never incited workers to protest.
“I was monitoring the workers protest to demand U.S. $160 [per month minimum wage],” he said.
“I saw the [security personnel] intended to use force against the workers, so I used a megaphone to beg them not to. But they assaulted the workers and I was hit with metal bars until I was bleeding.”
Vorn Pao vowed to continue his fight for workers rights, despite the threat of arrest.
“I will continue to work for the sake of the workers’ freedom, human rights, democracy and social justice,” he said.
Friday’s verdicts came as international clothing brands and unions stepped up pressure on Cambodia’s government to respect the rights of garment workers, warning that continued unrest could spoil the country’s lucrative export earning industry.
Earlier in the week, representatives of 30 global brands and trade unions confronted the government about the trial of the protesters, according to a statement by IndustriALL Global Union, which represents workers worldwide in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors.
In the statement, IndustriALL said that the brands and unions urged that the trial be “based on evidence and stand up to international scrutiny,” adding that it had doubts over direct links to damage of property by the protesters and the impartiality of judicial proceedings in the case.
The brands—which included H&M, Puma, Gap and Levi’s—and unions also urged the government to bring to justice those who shot at the demonstrators in the crackdowns and to refrain from meeting peaceful worker movements with violence.
Levi’s said recently that it had cut sourcing from Cambodia to reduce supply chain risk and ensure delivery.
Around a half million people work in Cambodia’s garment industry, which earns some U.S. $4.6 billion a year producing goods for Western clothing firms, but workers often work long shifts for little pay, trade unions complain.
It is the country's biggest employer and key export earner.
Cambodian garment unions are fighting to increase the minimum wage from U.S. $100 to U.S. $160 per month.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.