PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - Six Cambodian union leaders on Tuesday each received suspended 2 1/2-year prison terms in connection with labor protests about five years ago in which four garment workers were killed and around 20 others hurt.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found the labor leaders guilty on four charges involving violence and property damage at protests on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The court also ordered the six to jointly pay in compensation of 35 million riels ($8,750) to two policemen said to have been victims of protest violence.
The relatively lenient sentences appeared to be part of an effort by Prime Minister Hun Sen's government to soften its image as an authoritarian regime. It has faced sanctions from Western nations that accuse it of suppressing human and democratic rights, pointing especially to this year's general election which they charged was neither free nor fair because the only credible opposition party had been dissolved and its candidates barred from politics.
The casualties in early January 2014 occurred when police opened fire on striking factory workers who were demanding the minimum wage be doubled. Police claimed they were defending themselves after several hundred workers blocking a road began burning tires and throwing objects at them.
Although the protests involved labor issues, they came at a time of political stress, as the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party - now dissolved - was holding daily protests calling for Hun Sen to step down and call fresh elections. The opposition party claimed that Hun Sen had won the 2013 general election by rigging the vote.
Cambodia's mainstream labor movement, representing a huge number of industrial workers, was a potent political force as well, loosely aligned with Hun Sen's political opponents.
Hun Sen in recent months has been signaling his desire to improve his image with Western critics with a series of conciliatory gestures.
This Thursday, the National Assembly is expected to approve a measure that could rescind the five-year ban on political activity of at least some of the 118 top members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Other recent measures included the freeing, either on bail or as a result of pardons, of political prisoners, including opposition party chief Kem Sokha, who was charged last year with treason on the basis of flimsy evidence. He remains under tight house arrest.
In October, Hun Sen said he had agreed to the resumption of U.S. military-led missions to search for the remains of Americans missing in action during the Vietnam War, following an appeal from two U.S. state lawmakers.
Hun Sen last month also called on the courts - which are widely seen to do his government's bidding - to speed up proceedings against the six labor leaders or even get the charges dropped.
However, after Tuesday's verdict was announced, one of the defendants - Ath Thorn, leader of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union - said he was completely unhappy with the outcome and would appeal, because despite receiving a suspended sentence, his conviction under law would bar him from carrying out his union leader's duties for the sentence's duration. He said he was not even present at the protest site at the time of the violence.