Phnom Penh Municipal Court erupted in cheers this morning as judges announced the release of jailed unionist Vorn Pov and 22 others arrested during unruly garment wage protests in January of this year.
The release, as has become increasingly typical in such cases, was not without caveats.
All 23 were found guilty and given sentences ranging from one to four-and-a-half years, before those sentences were suspended.
The verdicts brought to an end a months-long drama that has loomed over the garment industry, and particularly over recent meetings between major brands and the manufacturers that supply them.
Presiding judge Keo Mony said yesterday that four of Pov’s cohorts were also slapped with fines of 8 million riel (about $2,000), but those were suspended as well.
“The Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge has decided to release the workers, including Vorn Pov,” Mony said yesterday. “Vorn Pov’s suspended sentence is four years and six months, and a fine of 8 million riel. The court will allow them to file an appeal within one month if they do not favour the court’s decision.”
Sam Sokong, Pov’s lawyer, said yesterday that while he welcomed the release, the court should have never sentenced his client in the first place, and that the question of an appeal was still up for debate.
“As for the decision of the court, some parts my client favours, and some parts my client does not favour,” he said. “In any event, my client will consider whether to take it to the Appeal Court or not.”
Meanwhile, in a separate courtroom, presiding judge Leang Sam Nath sentenced another group of 13 defendants – all of whom were arrested during a violent wage protest on Veng Sreng Boulevard, where state security forces shot and killed at least four demonstrators – to one to four years in prison, likewise suspending their sentences.
“Based on hearings, the court has found that they have been the guilty,” Sam Nat said, adding that the court had decided to drop the complaint filed by the owner of clinic that was smashed by the rioting workers.
In a separate decision, the court also sentenced two people, including a minor, who were arrested at a violent protest in Stung Meanchey last November, before suspending their sentences as well.
Rights groups were quick to condemn the convictions of all 25 defendants today, and have maintained throughout the trial that the rights of the suspects had been abused.
“The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) welcomes today’s decision by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court of First Instance to suspend the sentences of the 25 human rights defenders, activists and protestors,” read a statement from CCHR released yesterday. “However, CCHR strongly condemns the decision of the judges to convict them despite a complete lack of evidence, and serious violations of their right to a fair trial, as detailed by CCHR ahead of the verdict.”
CCHR went on to criticise the lack of an independent investigation into the use of deadly force by security personnel, and Chhay Chhunly, coordinator of CCHR’s human rights defenders project, was quoted in the statement as saying that no reliable evidence had been brought against the accused.
“The only thing the 25 can be blamed for is to have exercised their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” he said. “The lack of any incriminatory evidence demonstrates that the verdict is based on political considerations rather than evidence.”
Am Sam Ath, a senior monitor with rights group Licadho, also pointed towards political pressure, calling the verdict a product of competing pressure from the government – in favour of conviction – and visiting garment brands – who in recent meetings have said that any verdict should be based on credible evidence.
“I think that the court’s decision was under political pressure,” he said. “The court gets pressure from the government [to convict]… and all the buyers from other countries pressured them to protect the worker’s rights.”
The International Senior Lawyers Project, which works to promote rule of law, issued a statement saying the court’s handling of the case “fell far short of international standards for the conduct of fair trials”.
The criticism of the verdict didn’t dampen the overall sense of celebration among those who turned out in support of the defendants, Prak Sovanary, the wife of Vorn Pov, had her reservations as well.
“I am so happy that my husband could be released and set free, but I also do not like that the court decided to sentence my husband to four years and six months in prison,” she said. “My husband did nothing wrong. He shouldn’t have any sentence.”