News / Asia

Cambodia Court Convicts, Releases Labor Activists

A supporter walks in front of a row of motorized rickshaws covered with banners supporting the 23 defendants in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)
A supporter walks in front of a row of motorized rickshaws covered with banners supporting the 23 defendants in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)
Robert Carmichael
A Cambodian court on Friday convicted 23 garment workers and unionists who were arrested during violent protests in January - and then suspended their sentences and released them. The high-profile case was being watched by international brands, which had threatened to reconsider sourcing from Cambodia.
 
Ahead of Friday’s verdict, the authorities blocked the streets around Phnom Penh’s municipal court, so families and supporters of the 23 garment workers and unionists on trial gathered instead at the barricades to show their backing.

 
Union leader Ath Thorn (left), of the independent C.CAWDU union, joins supporters to light incense ahead of the verdict in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)Union leader Ath Thorn (left), of the independent C.CAWDU union, joins supporters to light incense ahead of the verdict in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)
x
Union leader Ath Thorn (left), of the independent C.CAWDU union, joins supporters to light incense ahead of the verdict in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)
Union leader Ath Thorn (left), of the independent C.CAWDU union, joins supporters to light incense ahead of the verdict in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)
Some lit incense at a makeshift Buddhist shrine placed in the middle of the road, while monks chanted prayers in the hope of a favorable verdict.
 
Rights groups have long held that the trial is a sham, a blunt effort by the government to use pliant courts to intimidate workers in the economically vital garment sector.
 
The 23 were arrested over two days in January during protests over the minimum wage that authorities violently suppressed using live ammunition. At least four workers died in the clashes - but to date, no investigation has been carried out into the killings.
 
The defendants were charged with an array of offenses, including incitement and damage to property. Legal experts said their trial fell well short of international standards, and was marked by serious failings including questionable evidence, the judge barring defendants from speaking, and denying the accused the right to cross-examine witnesses.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Phnom Penh, CambodiaPhnom Penh Municipal Court, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
x
Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

 
Supporters applaud release

Around 9:00 a.m. Friday, the several hundred supporters on hand were jubilant when they heard that the court had ordered the workers released. Some cheered, others cried.
 
The court ruled to convict all 23, sentencing them to prison terms of between one year and four-and-a-half years, but then ruled to suspend the sentences to time served. That meant the defendants would be free.
 
Dave Welsh is the country representative for the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor group. He said the reaction in court from the defendants and their families was overwhelmingly positive.  “The main thing is there’s just an enormous amount of relief - first of all with them, with their families, and with the trade union and human rights community in general - that they’re going to be freed today," he said.
 
Yet while the overall mood was buoyant, there was disappointment that the 23 were convicted at all.
 
Mixed feelings

Moeun Tola, who heads the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, a local NGO, said the verdict brings mixed feelings.
 
“You know, it is not justice at all for them to get convicted because those people did nothing wrong - just only demand wage for their stomach. They did nothing wrong. And those who are commit violence against the workers, shoot the people, die and injured, are still free and got no conviction," stated Moeun Tola. "So even [though] we welcome the release of the 23, but we also condemn the charge against them. “
 
  • A supporter walks in front of a row of motorized rickshaws covered with banners supporting the 23 defendants in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)
  • Union leader Ath Thorn (left), of the independent C.CAWDU union, joins supporters to light incense ahead of the verdict in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)
  • Anti-government protesters who had been in prison since their arrest in January wave from atop a truck during a rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014.
  • One of the 23 anti-government protesters who had been in prison since being arrested in January flashes a victory sign on his arrival at Phnom Penh Municipality Court, Cambodia, May 30, 2014.
  • Supporters of the defendants protest with effigies symbolizing the judge and prosecutor, near Phnom Penh Municipality Court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014.
  • A supporter places a poster calling for the release of the imprisoned activists in front of riot police officers standing guard at a congested street near Phnom Penh Municipality Court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014.
  • Supporters gather in front of banners that read "Please provide justice to land activists of Boeung Kak" at a congested street near Phnom Penh Municipality Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014.
  • Cambodian riot police officers prepare for guard duty in front of Phnom Penh Municipality Court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014.
  • A riot police officer stands guard near Phnom Penh Municipality Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 30, 2014.
Garment manufacturing is Cambodia’s main economic pillar, worth $5.5 billion in exports last year, mainly to the United States and the European Union.
 
Low wages are the main cause of discontent. The monthly minimum wage currently stands at $100, but workers want $160, and that was the reason behind January’s protests. The sector faces other challenges too, including a controversial trade union law that the government wants passed by the end of the year.
 
Pivotal week

Friday’s verdict comes at the end of a pivotal week. On Monday, a delegation of representatives from international brands including H&M, Puma and The Gap told senior government officials that unless conditions for the sector’s 600,000 workers improved, they would look to source elsewhere. The failings of Cambodia’s garment sector have caused them too many public relations problems.
 
The brands offered to pay more to the factories to which they subcontract their production, in that way allowing factories to increase what workers earn.
 
But, the brands said, the government must also act: it must stop using violence and the courts against workers and unionists, it must implement a proper wage-setting program, and it must ensure that, should the court lock up the defendants in the current case, the evidence meets international standards.
 
Welsh from the Solidarity Center said the verdict marks an important first step in getting relations in the garment sector back on track.
 
“The message that we were trying to relay is that it’s going to be very, very difficult, or it would have been very difficult, to move ahead on all of these issues - whether on the living wage, whether on the Trade Union Law, what have you - if these 23 remained, in our minds anyway, unjustifiably imprisoned," said Welsh. "So now that this is aside, I think there’s a real opportunity to move forward. And I think they’ll see it in the same light.”
 
Within hours of the verdict being read out, all of the defendants had been released from prison. Hundreds of their supporters were waiting for them, and joined them in a parade from the jail back into Phnom Penh.

You May Like

Mood Tense Ahead of Scotland Independence Vote

As race to persuade undecided voters continues, 'No' voters say they believe life in Scotland will slowly improve, 'Yes' vote not worth the risk More

South Africa’s 'Open Mosque' Admits Everyone, Including Critics

Open Mosque founder plans to welcome gay worshipers and allow women to lead prayers More

Ukrainian Activist in Despair About Future of Her Country

IrIna Dovgan, accused of being a spy and tortured by pro-Russian separatists, is appealing to UN Human Rights Council to support her country More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Wateri
X
September 17, 2014 8:44 PM
Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid