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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Freedom denied for 21

Prak Sovannary, centre, the wife of imprisoned IDEA president Vorn Pov
Prak Sovannary, centre, the wife of imprisoned IDEA president Vorn Pov, weeps yesterday in front of Phnom Penh’s Appeal Court. Vireak Mai

Freedom denied for 21

Tears rolled down Prak Sovannary’s face as she sat on a curb in front of the Court of Appeal surrounded by her damp-eyed children and supporters yesterday afternoon, minutes after a judge denied her husband’s bail request.

“My husband and the other 20 workers have not done anything wrong,” Sovannary said. “But the court will not drop the charges against them.”

Union leaders, legal aid workers and other supporters stood in shock yesterday when Appeal Court Judge Khun Leangmeng refused bail for Sovannary’s husband, Vorn Pov – president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA) – and 20 other men arrested at demonstrations supporting a nationwide garment worker strike early last month.

Two of the original 23 arrested during the January 2 and 3 protests, Bu Sarith, 27, and Phon Sokchea, 17, were released on bail on Saturday.

In the wake of the court’s decision yesterday, union leaders said they will resume the strike they suspended about a month ago.

After the decision, police cleared about 200 supporters standing outside the court complex’s gates on Phnom Penh’s riverside, as a few land-rights activists who made their way inside the court’s parking lot before the gates were closed kneeled down and wailed, crawling towards and berating security guards there.

Judge Leangmeng told the Post after the court session that he denied the 21 detainees bail for three reasons: to allow the court to fully investigate the charges, which include intentionally causing damage with aggravating circumstances and acts of violence with aggravating circumstances; to prevent the crime from reoccurring; and to avoid the possibility of defendants meeting with witnesses to fabricate a story.

Defence attorney Sam Sokong, who represents six of the defendants, added that Leangmeng said in court that releasing the men on bail may disturb public order.

Activists in front of the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh hold placards
Activists in front of the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh hold placards yesterday during a protest demanding the release of 21 detained people. Heng Chivoan

“We had hoped this morning that at least 18 people would be released today,” said Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at Community Legal Education Center (CLEC). “We are shocked by the final result.”

CLEC attorneys representing some of the detainees told Tola that during the three-hour session, prosecutors described the crimes as relatively minor, and did not request denial of bail, leaving the decision to the court, he said.

Seeing political motives, rather than legal ones for continuing the detainees’ detention, Ny Chakrya, head of human rights and legal aid for rights group Adhoc, said the bail denial was punishment for people who supported a garment worker strike that became closely aligned with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The strike began on December 24, after the Ministry of Labour set the garment sector’s 2014 minimum monthly wage at $95, up from the current $80 (which includes a $5 health bonus), rather than the $160 unions demanded. The ministry raised it another $5 a week later.

But after strikers, who joined in ongoing CNRP mass demonstrations, continued demanding more, authorities – including military paratroopers – beat and arrested 10 demonstrators at the Yakjin factory on January 2. A day later, authorities opened fire with live ammunition when a protest on Veng Sreng Boulevard turned violent, killing at least four, injuring dozens and arresting an additional 13.

“[The decision] exposes the lack of an independent court system, and that 23 people can be used as hostages in political issues, since the unions were closely connected with the CNRP during their mass demonstrations,” Chakrya said.

But the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has neither the power nor the inclination to use the court system to retaliate against the CNRP, said Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers.

“We respect the court of law; let them do their job, and let everyone be held accountable,” Siphan said yesterday.

Since September, CNRP lawmakers-elect have boycotted the National Assembly in protest of July’s election, which was beset with rampant allegations of fraud and awarded to the CPP, 68 seats to 55.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, yesterday said judges often provide similar reasons for denying bail as Leangmeng did in cases with no political implications.

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said eight unions had previously decided they would resume the strike if the 21 were not granted bail.

The union groups will meet this week to discuss how to re-engage workers across the country, he added.

“We’re not sure what activity we will do, when we will do it, where we will do it or how many people will join us,” he said. “This [issue of the] 21 is important, and also the renegotiation on the wage issue is important.”

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