Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Wednesday that he believes three of the six union leaders convicted for their role in violent street demonstrations were innocent.
Seemingly contradicting the judgement handed down by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday, his comments were made as he addressed 20,000 garment factory workers in Kampong Speu province’s Romduol village on Wednesday.
He said the people involved with “attempting to topple the government” in violent demonstrations at Veng Sreng Street in Phnom Penh must be punished, but that he believed three of the six convicted union leaders were not involved in the demonstrations.
Hun Sen named the three as the presidents of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, Ath Thorn; the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, Pav Sina; and the former president of the Free Trade Union, Chea Mony.
Their convictions came in relation to events in late 2013 and early 2014, in which garment factory workers protested at Veng Sreng Street in Phnom Penh demanding an increase to the minimum wage.
The protests were backed by the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) which joined the protests and also called for a recount of votes from the 2013 national election. The demonstrations, which lasted for several weeks, ended in violence.
On Tuesday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court handed six union leaders – Ath Thorn, Chea Mony, Yang Sophorn, Pav Sina, Rong Chhun and Mam Nhim – two and a half year prison sentences each, along with a 35 million riel ($8,700) compensation order to be paid to two victims of the protests.
But on Wednesday the prime minister said there was sufficient evidence proving the innocence of three of the six convicted union leaders. He did not comment on the convictions of the remaining three.
He cited the chairman of the Cambodia Human Rights Committee Keo Remy and journalist Soy Sopheap as key witnesses who are able to exonerate Chea Mony, Pav Sina and Ath Thorn.
“Keo Remy can be a witness for Chea Mony, because at the time I received a report that forces would intervene [in the Veng Sreng protests], I called Keo Remy to tell him to instruct Chea Mony not to get involved."
“For Ath Thorn, I sent a message via WhatsApp [a mobile messaging app]. For Pav Sina, I told Soy Sopheap to not let him get involved. Therefore, I believe these three people have not been involved since the beginning,” the prime minister said.
However, Hun Sen urged the three men to “forward their complaints to the Appeals Court”. He also advised the men to gather more evidence to prove their innocence.
Pav Sina corroborated the prime minister’s statement, saying he was not involved in the protests and was occupied in a series of meetings while they were happening.
He said he was unable to accept the decision of Phnom Penh Municipal Court and planned to follow the prime minister’s advice and forward the case to the Appeals Court.
“The statement of Samdech [Hun Sen] is a sign of hope for us. It encourages us to continue our work because I have not committed the crime I was charged with. I will file a complaint to the Appeals Court and hope to have my conviction overturned,” he said.
Ath Thorn said he believed the prime minister’s comments gave them a strong chance of successfully overturning their convictions through the Appeals Court, a process he had already
“I have prepared the lawyer and documents for forwarding the case to the Appeals Court, in order to oppose the verdict of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. I ask the Appeals Court to consider the facts because the allegations of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court are unacceptable for me,” he said.
Chea Mony’s wife also refuted the Phnom Penh Municipal Court conviction, saying her husband did not leave their house after Soy Sopheap called to tell him not to get involved in the demonstrations.
“I will prepare the complaint for filing to the Appeals Court,” she said following Hun Sen’s recommendation.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor Ly Sophana did not wish to comment on the case when contacted by The Post on Wednesday.