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Union leader’s detention criticised

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Labour union leader Ath Thorn and garment workers from the United Apparel factory release birds and balloons at a rally yesterday.

ABOUT 100 trade unionists and garment workers gathered yesterday at the entrance to  Prey Sar prison to demand the release of a union leader awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges that many claim are fabricated.

Suos Chantha, a 29-year-old union leader at the United Garment Factory in Sen Sok district, was arrested on November 19 and charged with drug smuggling after military police officials at a checkpoint outside his workplace allegedly confiscated nine small packets of methamphetamines from his motorbike.

Union leaders, civil society representatives and factory workers gathered at a pagoda near Prey Sar to pray for his release yesterday. They then held a ceremony at the entrance to the prison, where they released birds and balloons in a symbolic gesture.

Ath Thorn, head of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, said during the ceremony that Sous Chantha’s arrest was designed to prevent him from organising a protest and to stop him from encouraging workers to join the CLC.

“Suos Chantha was arrested one day after he resigned from a trade union and joined my trade union,” he said. “We suspect that there was someone who put the drugs in his motorbike.”

Moeun Tola, head of the labour programme at the Community Legal Education Centre, said the union Sous Chantha had defected from was aligned with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

“To me it’s very strange,” he said. “When military police searched the motorbike ... it was clear they were looking for the drugs.”

On December 16, Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered Sous Chantha to remain in pretrial detention after he pleaded not guilty to the drug charges.

Investigating Judge Phou Povson said yesterday that a trial date had not been set because he was waiting for the results of laboratory tests being run on the substance allegedly confiscated from Sous Chantha’s  motorbike.

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