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Groups call for union leader’s release

Rights groups and union organisations have called on the government for the “immediate and unconditional release” of detained union leader Suos Chantha, who is set to stand trial today on drug trafficking charges in what many believe was a frame-up.

In a letter dated Wednesday and sent to Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, six representatives from groups including Amnesty International and  International Federation for Human Rights urged the government to “put an end to any further act of harassment against Suos Chantha”.  “The circumstances surrounding [Suos Chantha’s] arrest have raised substantial doubt surrounding these charges, and serious concerns that they may have been brought in retaliation for his union activities,” the letter stated.

The 29-year-old union leader at the United Garment Factory in Sen Sok district was arrested on November 19 and charged with drug trafficking, after officials allegedly confiscated nine small packets of methamphetamines from his motorbike.

At the time, Suos Chantha was in talks to lead a defection of around 1,000 workers from the government-aligned Independent and Democratic Union Federation to the independent Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, prompting claims that he was framed in retaliation for the move.

“This case is really related to [Suos Chantha’s] union activities,” Khun Tharo, programme officer at the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, said yesterday.

Rights workers also expressed concerns about “suspicious” circumstances around Suos Chantha’s arrest. “The over-hasty initial court hearing and the overall context in which the arrest took place, point to an attempt to not only put an end to Chantha’s activities, but to send a warning to other union activists,” Jan Beanland, Cambodia campaigner for Amnesty International, said.

Ath Thorn, head of CCAWDU, said yesterday that he could not judge whether Suos Chantha was framed, but added: “He neither smokes nor colludes with friends who use drugs or smoke. How could he have drugs in his bike?”

Suos Chantha’s lawyer Seng Sokkhim declared his client’s innocence yesterday.

Oum Mean, secretary of state at the Labour Ministry, said yesterday that union leaders had equal rights as citizens before the law.

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