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First hearing wraps for 23

protester carried
District security guards carry away a woman who was demonstrating in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday morning in support of the 23 men detained since January's garment strike unrest. Heng Chivoan

First hearing wraps for 23

THE trial of 23 people arrested during a garment strike in January was adjourned on Friday until May 6 after a long-awaited first hearing.

After hearing from witnesses, Phnom Penh Municipal Judge Keo Mony said that due to the seriousness of the charges, the court needed more time to study the evidence before it could reach a verdict.

“These people [are accused of] having incited people to protest against garment factories and causing serious turmoil in our society,” he said.

All suspects were arrested on January 2 and January 3 in Phnom Penh during a nationwide garment strike that ended in government forces shooting dead at least four people.

Charges include aggravated intentional violence and aggravated intentional property destruction, which carry a maximum prison sentence of five years. The court has reduced charges against at least three, including Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA) president Vorn Pov, whose charges carry a maximum of two years.

In one courtroom, a judge took nearly two hours after the afternoon lunch break to call roll for witnesses for a second time. When the clock neared 4pm, he said judges needed to end proceedings due to time constraints in getting the defendants back to Prey Sar prison, where they are being held.

In addition to the two trials composing the 23, two men were separately on trial for their alleged participation in a Meanchey district riot that occurred when factory workers on strike from SL Garment were blocked by police during a march on November 12.

After the hearing, police in riot gear cleared journalists and rights workers in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court to the other side of the street, as a van containing the prisoners sped out of the building’s back entrance.

Earlier in the day, police focused their attention on about 400 supporters who waved flags, burned incense and made speeches over loudspeakers.

Authorities had blocked the street in front of the courthouse with barricades and police in riot gear before 7am. Demonstrators on one side set up a makeshift shrine with sacrifices of beer and fruit in front of the police roadblock. “Free the 23” was printed on many of their T-shirts and painted on some faces.

At about 9:15, Yorm Bopha and other land rights activists made their way across the barricades on one side, ran toward the courthouse and were stopped and physically carried back by police and Daun Penh security guards – a process that was repeated over the course of two hours.

Some 50 police guarded each side of the blockade, while an additional 50 reinforcements sat at Olympic Stadium, which is located across the street from the court.

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