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Cambodian Court Sentences, Frees 23 Jailed Protesters

A court in Cambodia on Friday convicted 23 workers and activists for instigating violence during a mass garment workers’ strike but suspended their jail sentence and set the group free in a widely followed case that has come under international scrutiny.Local civil society organizations welcomed the release of the 23, but called their conviction “an injustice” due what they felt was a lack of evidence and said that the trial was “tainted with numerous irregularities.”The Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced the defendants to between one and four-and-a-half years for “causing intentional violence” and “damaging property” during the Jan. 3 strike which was violently suppressed by authorities, leaving four civilians dead and 40 injured.The court decided to suspend the sentences of the 23, who had been detained immediately after the crackdown on the strike backed by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), allowing the accused to walk free.Two dozen local civil society groups welcomed the court decision to suspend the sentences but expressed “extreme disappointment” at the convictions and heavy fines imposed on some of them following “a deeply flawed trial process.” “While we welcome the court’s decision to release [them], we have not seen justice here today,” said Heng Samorn, General Secretary of Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), whose leader was among the accused.“They were all still convicted following trials which in fact confirmed the near total lack of evidence against them. The circumstances of the arrests and the fact that the trials were all held at the same time indicate that these cases were wholly political in nature.”“The aim was not to seek justice but rather to try and bring an end to popular protest and make people afraid to take to the streets to claim their rights.” The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) said they too were “concerned about the criminal conviction” of the 23 “in view of the apparent procedural shortcomings” of their separate trials.In a joint statement, the two organizations also expressed reservations over “the lack of evidence establishing direct responsibility of the individuals for the actions of which they were nevertheless found guilty.”“Furthermore, in a number of cases, the evidence indicates that individuals were arrested when simply exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, while defending workers’ socio-economic interests,” the statement said.The OHCHR and ILO called for “independent investigations and full accountability” for the violent dispersals of demonstrations.Released activistFollowing his release from prison, IDEA president Vorn Pao thanked those who helped to fight for his freedom.“I would like to thank my Khmer compatriots who supported me, as well as the NGOs and [foreign] embassies, donors and lawyers who defended us,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.Vorn Pao, who rights groups said had frequently complained about his health in custody, and who had been repeatedly denied bail despite collapsing during one of his hearings, said he had suffered during his arrest and subsequent detention.He maintained his innocence Friday, saying that he had only acted as an observer during the strike and never incited workers to protest.“I was monitoring the workers protest to demand U.S. $160 [per month minimum wage],” he said.“I saw the [security personnel] intended to use force against the workers, so I used a megaphone to beg them not to. But they assaulted the workers and I was hit with metal bars until I was bleeding.”Vorn Pao vowed to continue his fight for workers rights, despite a threat of arrest.“I will continue to work for the sake of the workers’ freedom, human rights, democracy and social justice,” he said.Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Source: RFA News Headlines