Crowds wait outside the court during Tuesday's bail hearing in Phnom Penh (photo by Abby Seiff)
A group of 21 garment workers, protesters and rights activists were denied bail on Tuesday, a month after the group was arrested in Phnom Penh during protests which were violently put down by the Cambodian authorities.
According to defense lawyer Sam Sokong, judges in the closed-door hearing ruled that releasing the group posed too many threats.
“They said if they released all of them on bail, it will affect public order. Or they will all escape from Cambodia and it will be difficult to call them all to court,” he said.
A group of 10 people were arrested on January 2 after soldiers arrived to break up a demonstration by striking garment workers outside the Korean-owned Yakjin factory.
Another 13 were arrested a day later when riots broke out near an industrial complex and police forcibly broke up protests by firing live ammunition, killing at least five in the process.
Both clashes came amid crippling strikes by garment workers calling for a wage hike. Rights groups maintain the arrests were meant to discourage public dissent.
All 23 were remanded to a remote prison, and authorities refused to give notice of their whereabouts to families and lawyers for nearly a week.
While most of those arrested were protesters, among those pulled in were three activists: Unionist Vorn Pov, who heads the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, Theng Savuen of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, and land rights activist Chan Puthisak.
Pov, the most high profile member of the group, suffers severe health problems following a kidney operation last year. Monitors believe his health may have grown worse in custody after being badly beaten by soldiers during the protest.
Weeping as she left the court, his wife Prak Sovannary decried the verdict as deeply unjust.
“It’s not good,” she said. “He needs to be freed.”
Outside the court, several hundred protesters gathered, holding signs calling for the group to be released and for a raise in the minimum wage earned by garment workers.
Two of the men were released on bail on Saturday for unknown reasons and for much of the morning, the crowd remained convinced that at least some of the 21 remaining would be freed.
Tim Malay, president of the Cambodian Youth Network, said he was hopeful that the show of support would eventually force the government to bend to the will of the people.
“This is to show to the government that the people want them to be free and have justice now,” he said.
The demonstration comes at an unusually tense time in Cambodia and is considered illegal under a ban on public assembly enacted by the government following the early January clashes.
Cambodia's rights record has come under increasing scrutiny following elections at the end of July that officially reduced the ruling party’s majority but which the opposition and many independent monitors say was rigged in favor of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
In response, the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has boycotted parliament and organized street protests which have at times coincided with garment worker demonstrations in the biggest threat to the Cambodian government in years.