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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ‘The 23’ put police on trial

Defendant Chan Puthisak outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday. Puthisak is one of 23 people on trial after being arrested in garment protests in January
Defendant Chan Puthisak outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday. Puthisak is one of 23 people on trial after being arrested in garment protests in January. Pha Lina

‘The 23’ put police on trial

Each of the 23 defendants who testified yesterday on charges linked to the garment protests in early January denied involvement in the violent demonstrations, while many said police beat false statements out of them.

On the second full day of proceedings for the trial of nearly two dozen people, judges and attorneys in two Phnom Penh Municipal Court rooms completed questioning of all but three defendants. The cases are scheduled to continue at 8am on May 20.

“The 23”, as they’ve come to be known on social media and in public rallies in support of them, were all arrested in early January in a violent crackdown on garment protests that were sparked by the government announcing in late December a lower-than-desired rise in minimum wage to $95.

Ten of the defendants were arrested on January 2 outside the South Korean-owned Yakjin garment factory, when protesters blocked a national road. The next day, the rest of the group was swept up as part of a crackdown in which military police fired on an unruly demonstration outside Phnom Penh’s Canadia Industrial Park on Veng Sreng Boulevard, killing at least four people.

No one has been arrested or brought to court over the shootings.

After the crackdown, the majority of defendants spent nearly four months in jail before all had their first day in court on April 25, though much of it was procedural. Proceedings yesterday, however, involved far more testimony, most of which conflicted with official accounts.

“They arrested me while I was riding to Svay Rieng province to bring clothes to my wife, who just delivered our baby,” said Ros Sophoan, 25, a garment and construction worker arrested on January 3. “After arresting [and beating] me, police ordered me to run; police ran after me and beat me again, like an animal.”

Shortly after proceedings began yesterday, prosecutor Top Chhun Long grilled 34-year-old defendant and motodop Chea Sarath, asking him why police found petrol on him when they arrested him on Veng Sreng Boulevard after midnight on January 3; he presented a glass bottle filled with petrol in a large zip-lock bag as evidence.

Chhun Long read an excerpt from the police report submitted to the court – and signed by Sarath – that concluded he was one of the people who intended to throw Molotov cocktails at authorities. “[Sarath] received a bottle of gasoline from a group of demonstrators with orders to throw it at police,” Chhun Long read aloud.

Sarath testified that police actually arrested him at a nearby petrol station as he filled his motorbike tank. Allegedly beaten at the scene and again at the police station, Sarath signed the police report to avoid another assault, he said.

Supporters of the 23 men on trial yesterday show their support outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court
Supporters of the 23 men on trial yesterday show their support outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Pha Lina

When one of Sarath’s defence attorneys asked her client about his injuries, Judge Leang Sarath ordered her to stick with questions related to the charges. All the defendants are facing charges ranging from inciting violence to aggravated intentional violence.

Like Chea Sarath, 17-year-old Yon Sok Chea asked the court to use his direct account of events in the early hours of January 3, rather than the contradictory police report, after Chhun Long inquired as to why Sok Chea said he saw nobody throwing rocks at police.

One of two defendants who received bail, Sok Chea said police broke his hand when they detained him as he stood in front of a residential building watching the chaos with about 10 others. “While arresting me, police used electric batons and beat my arm and head,” Sok Chea said.

In courtroom two, where the testimony from some of the defendants arrested during the demonstration outside the Yakjin garment factory was heard, one suspect also said evidence had been falsified.

During proceedings for those 10 defendants, Sokun Sombath Piseth, 31, a networking officer at the Center for Labor Rights of Cambodia, said he believed a photograph purporting to show him leading a group of protesters in front of the factory was doctored.

Despite defence attorney Sam Sokong’s objection to the new evidence, which he was unaware of being entered into court yesterday, Judge Keo Mony allowed prosecutor Ly Sophanna to use the picture.

“I recognise it’s me in this photo, but I don’t recognise the whole photo; I think it’s been edited with Photoshop,” Sombath Piseth said in court, pointing out that the photo had no timestamp.

Three of the defendants in the Yakjin trial have yet to testify, including Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association president Vorn Pov, but Judge Sarath heard from all 13 arrested on Veng Sreng, and two police officials on the victims list.

A separate case involving two people arrested during a November march-turned-riot supporting a strike at SL Garment Processing wrapped up yesterday. A verdict in that case will be read May 30.

Kim Rithy, deputy chief of the capital’s Prampi Makara district police intervention unit, and Lay Vin, deputy chief of the district police’s public order unit, each said they suffered injuries at the hands of Veng Sreng demonstrators.

Rithy, who said he suffered permanent damage to his eye from a projectile, is suing for 40 million riel ($10,000). Vin, who said protesters dropping objects from a building injured his shoulder and legs, is demanding 20 million riel ($5,000).

Pointing out that demonstrators early on January 3 used high-powered flashlights to blind police and quickly blocked roads with trucks, Vin said the tactics did not appear to be the work of amateurs.

“This was a clearly organised group,” Vin said.

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