Updated: May 29, 2014 07:39 PM GMT
Protesters gather around a pair of effigies meant to represent the judges and prosecutors involved in the case. (photo by Abby Seiff)
Nearly five months after their violent arrest and secretive imprisonment, more than 20 unionists, garment workers and bystanders walked free on Friday from Phnom Penh Municipal Court. All members of the group were found guilty but given suspended sentences which qualified them for immediate release.
The case involved 23 people arrested on two separate days during a January crackdown on garment strikes which saw at least five protesters killed and scores injured, as well as two teenagers – one just 14 – who were arrested during a November clash in which a bystander was killed.
All stood accused of a range of charges related to inciting or committing violence during the clashes, but all have maintained their innocence throughout a trial that spanned a month. Rights groups have called the charges politically motivated.
As the case dragged on, proceedings ranged from the farcical to the tragic. Prosecutors submitted video footage from previous, unrelated protests as evidence in their favor, while judges relied on photographs that captured nothing more than a crowd. At one point Vorn Pov – the most prominent of the group and head of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association – collapsed on the stand due to health problems worsened by months of detention.
Ultimately, the group was handed sentences ranging from one to four years imprisonment, with the most active and prominent NGO workers, unionists and community leaders receiving the harshest sentences. The 22 who had been in prison were released at around noon on Friday (three, including the two minors, were previously released on bail).
“We can’t say that it is justice happening for them today, but we still condemn the charges against them, it’s very unjust,” said Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center. “What we would expect is that [the charges] would be dropped.”
The verdict came just days after meetings between garment buyers and the government, during which the brands issued some of their harshest criticisms yet. Following the meetings, brands warned that the government was in danger of destroying a garment sector that remains the cornerstone of Cambodia’s economy.
“I think the pressure was the main tool,” said Tola. “We don’t think the government would win [economically] if they kept them in jail.”
Outside the court, those who had gathered to hear the verdict acknowledged that pleasing international brands like H&M, Gap and Levi’s was probaby the main reason for Friday’s outcome.
“The buyers came to the country to threaten to stop orders, that’s why they were released,” said Prak Sengha, a 28-year-old nursing student.
Sengha was among those gathered at metal road barriers blocking access hundreds of meters from the court in each direction. A ban on free assembly has been in place since January and in recent months spectators have been blocked from going near the courts, protest sites and government buildings. After a peaceful conclusion to the hearing, dozens of armed riot police could be seen leaving in army trucks.
At an opposite barricade, supporters gathered in front of a pair of effigies ensconced in coffins and cursed the judges and prosecutors they were meant to represent. While Buddhist monks chanted a prayer, supporters knelt down to light incense and throw flowers and ghost money at the fake-blood spattered pair.
The Venerable Sot Sina, 24, said he was happy the group was being released but considered it only a partial victory as the charges remained.
“I think it’s not fair. The court isn’t fair, the court in Cambodia hasn’t been fair for a long time.”
With assistance from Mech Dara