The long-awaited trial of nearly two dozen Cambodians arrested during a worker strike began Friday but the judge put off the hearing to next month, prompting an outcry from activists who demanded that the hearing proceed.
The 23 men are facing charges of causing intentional violence and damaging property during strikes in the capital Phnom Penh in early January which left five people dead and nearly 40 wounded when security forces opened fire on workers demanding higher minimum wages.
After listening to testimony from the accused on Friday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Keo Mony adjourned the proceedings to May 6 to allow more time to study the evidence against the defendants because of the severity of the charges they are facing.
Keo Mony also said that prison guards were eager to transport the accused back to Prey Sar prison, where they are being held, citing time constraints and security issues.
The hearings in two courtrooms were heavily guarded by security personnel amid a protest by hundreds of activists and supporters outside of the court calling for the release of the 23 men, most of whom have been detained without bail.
After the hearings, rights activists Chan Puthisak and Vorn Pov, who are among the 23, called for justice as guards pushed them into a waiting security van.
“Why did the judge delay the hearing?” the men shouted.
“It is inappropriate, as we have witnesses and enough evidence … Why won’t they continue on Monday? We want justice for the 23!”
Police in riot gear cleared protesters to the other side of the street to make way for the vehicle as it left the courthouse to return the defendants to their detention facility.
Vorn Pov’s wife, Prak Sovanary, told RFA’s Khmer Service that she believes Judge Keo Mony is acting on behalf of the prosecution.
“I am not a lawyer but when I listened to the hearing, it seemed that the judge was biased,” she said, adding that he had barely allowed the defense to present their side of the story.
“The prosecutors intend to keep the accused in prison.”
During their testimony, the defendants denied the charges, which carry a maximum prison sentence of five years, with some saying that they had not participated in the Jan. 2 strikes, but were simply arrested because they tried to run away when security personnel began to attack protesters.
Sources said that deputy prosecutor Ly Sophana repeatedly shouted the same accusations at the defendants at the trial Friday, though he denied he was making threats when defense lawyers protested to the judge.
The prosecution interviewed military police witness Chhou Eng who told the court that only 30 to 40 special unit commandos were deployed to monitor the Jan. 2 strike, and that they only carried shields and rubber batons, not metal bars, as had been reported by rights groups.
The judge and prosecutors also refused to allow video of the crackdown, which the defense said would show how authorities employed lethal force to break up the protest.
It was during a particularly heated exchange that prison guards stepped in and asked Keo Mony to transport the accused back to Prey Sar, at which point the judge agreed to adjourn the proceedings and announced that the trial would be postponed, sources said.
Earlier in the day, supporters had gathered around the courthouse waving flags, burning incense and making speeches over loudspeakers, according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.
Several hundred police were deployed to block the street in front of the building with barricades before 7:00 a.m., while demonstrators—many of whom wore T-shirts or face paint which read “Free the 23”—set up a makeshift shrine to pray for the defendants’ release, the report said.
About two hours later, land right activist Yorm Bopha and several others crossed police barricades and ran toward the courthouse, where they were stopped and carried back by authorities, the paper said, adding that the process was repeated several times over the next two hours.
Agence France-Presse quoted unionist Kong Athit of the Cambodian Labour Confederation as denouncing what he described as "politically-motivated charges" against the defendants.
"The workers did not hurt anybody … They were just protesting for a wage to survive on," he said.
AFP also quoted Am Sam Ath of local rights group Licadho who said the charges against the men are unjust.
“Their case is connected to politics,” he said, accusing one of the judges of being biased toward the prosecution after he allegedly said during the hearing that "authorities cracked down on the anarchic group.”
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.
Separately, two other people went on trial Friday on similar charges following a violent clash between garment workers and police in November during which a woman was shot dead.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.