Workers' unions, rights groups, and a consortium of international clothing brands have called for a fair verdict for 23 textile workers and activists charged over their links to a deadly strike ahead of a court decision Friday.
The 23 are facing charges of “causing intentional violence” and “damaging property” during the opposition-backed strike and face up to five years’ imprisonment as well as fines from U.S. $1,000 to $2,500 if convicted.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), which had monitored their trial, said the court hearings revealed "a complete lack of any incriminatory evidence, serious concerns relating to the independence of the court [and] repeated violations of the defendants’ fair trial rights."
Ahead of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court verdict Friday, the CCHR also raised concerns that some of the detainees who were wounded during the January strike which led to a government crackdown were deprived of immediate medical care.
The 23 were arrested following the crackdown on an opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)-backed strike by workers demanding higher wages, which left five people shot dead by security forces and nearly 40 wounded.
“If the 23 are found guilty, it will do little besides illustrating that the judiciary in Cambodia is not independent, and only partial to the interests of the elite and the Royal Government of Cambodia,” CCHR project coordinator Chhunly Chhay said in a statement Thursday.
Chhunly Chhay said that while the defendants were standing trial “despite a serious lack of evidence,” no security personnel had yet been investigated or even questioned about the violence that occurred in January.
“After … five days of hearing, it is clear that the judicial system of Cambodia is not a tool for justice but a tool to repress opposition voices,” he said.
“In light of the lack of evidence, we call for the acquittal of the 23, for their immediate release and for a prompt and independent investigation into the excessive use of force by state security forces.”
Brands, unions weigh in
On Monday, 30 international clothing brands and trade unions confronted the government about the trial of the 23 protesters, according to a statement by IndustriALL Global Union, which represents workers worldwide in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors, and which was present at the meeting.
“Brands and unions also expressed their concerns that the trial of 23 protestors … must be based on evidence and stand up to international scrutiny,” the statement said.
“There is a question mark over evidence of direct links to damage to property by the 23 detainees, while IndustriALL sources have cast serious doubts about the impartiality of judicial proceedings in their trial.”
IndustriALL cited sources as saying that the detainees are set to receive prison sentences of two to three years when they are sentenced on Friday.
“If these rumours are true, it will seriously damage the reputation of Cambodia’s judicial system internationally and who knows what reaction it will generate on the streets of Phnom Penh,” said the group’s general secretary Jyrki Raina.
The brands and unions also urged the government that “those who shot at demonstrators ... be brought to justice” and asked “that worker actions, such as peaceful strikes and demonstrations, are not met with violence.”
Trial and health concerns
CCHR said that documentary video of the incident presented by the prosecution as evidence at hearings for the 23 “did not show any of the defendants,” while many of the questions focused on establishing whether they were present at the protests.
It said that while the prosecution questioned the accuracy of defendants’ testimonies, it ignored “evidence that many of the defendants’ original statements were obtained under duress.”
“These questions and the defendants’ answers alone are not sufficient to prove guilt … As such, any guilty verdict made against the 23 accused will be untenable,” it said.
Additionally, CCHR highlighted concerns for the physical and mental health of some of the defendants, who have repeatedly been denied bail.
The group said cited Center for Labor Rights of Cambodia activist Sambath Piseth, who had raised concerns about his hand, which was broken during his arrest, and his difficulty breathing.
CCHR also highlighted the plight of one of the detainees, Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), who repeatedly raised concerns about his health, and who had collapsed during one of his hearings.
The two are among four human rights activists in the group of 23 facing additional charges of “instigation” of acts of violence and damage of property during the strike.
At Monday’s meeting with Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon and senior government officials in the capital Phnom Penh, the delegation of global brands and trade unions also expressed international concerns on the treatment of Cambodian garment workers.
In their joint statement, IndustriALL and the brands—including H&M, GAP, Puma and Levi’s—said that Cambodia was “at risk of losing its status as a strategic sourcing market” due to the concerns.
According to IndustriALL, one major clothing brand revealed during the meeting that it had cut its sourcing from Cambodia by 50 percent in the past year due to concerns about political instability and human rights violations in the country.
The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Levi’s had “cut back its Cambodia sourcing to minimize supply-chain risk and ensure delivery,” citing company spokeswoman Amber McCasland.
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.