A group of 21 Cambodian protesters arrested more than three months ago during a deadly government crackdown on striking garment workers will have their first opportunity to defend themselves when their trial begins on Friday.
Ahead of the trial, the detainees, who face charges of causing intentional violence and damaging property, were moved Wednesday from a remote high-security facility in Kampong Cham to the main Prey Sar prison in the capital Phnom Penh.
They will be held there until their closely watched trial at the Phnom Penh municipal court.
Rights groups, which say the charges against the 21 stem from political interference aimed at curbing dissent, are planning demonstrations Friday outside the court calling for their release, sources said.
Two others arrested alongside the 21 but released on bail will also be tried at the hearing.
Senior Licadho Investigator Am Sam Ath said Friday’s hearing will be the activists’ first chance since their arrest to defend themselves before the court.
“We are hoping that the judge will drop all the charges against them and release them to be reunited with their families,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“The 23 are being used as political hostages for politicians, but currently the political situation is easing a bit, so I hope that the court will release them.”
The activists were arrested after a Jan. 3 crackdown on striking garment workers demanding higher minimum wage.
Security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing 5 people and wounding nearly 40 others in what rights groups have said was the worst state violence against civilians in the country in years.
NGOs are providing 10 lawyers to represent the 21 defendants, who will be tried in three hearings.
If convicted they face up to up to five years’ imprisonment, as well as fines from U.S. $1,000 to $2,500.
Earlier this year some of the detainees staged a hunger strike at Kampong Cham Correctional Center 3 where they were being held, a facility rights groups have labeled “among the harshest prisons in Cambodia.”
The two who received bail 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.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.