The Ministry of Labour on Friday asked the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to drop charges against labour rights advocate Moeun Tola, who was accused by a politician of misappropriating funds raised for slain political analyst Kem Ley’s funeral.
The court charged Tola, as well as activist monk But Buntenh and independent media advocate Pa Nguon Teang, with “breach of trust” in January, despite the fact that Kem Ley’s family members said none of the three had been involved in managing funeral funds. The charges were widely decried by rights groups.
Now, the Ministry of Labour is requesting that charges be dropped against Tola, to “ensure freedom of association”. Tola, who is outside of the country, said he suspects that pressure from clothing brands may have played a role.
Multiple apparel groups representing some of the largest US and European brands, including Gap and H&M, have urged the government to drop charges against him.
Another group, US apparel giant VF Corporation – which represents the North Face, JanSport and Timberland – also expressed concern about what it said were “recent actions that seem to undermine progress toward improving worker rights” in a meeting with the ministry last month.
Naly Pilorge, of the rights group Licadho, said she was not sure why the ministry made the request, but expressed hope that charges would be dropped, “urgently and in writing”, against Tola, Buntenh and Nguon Teang.
Tola described the request as a “positive move”, but said he was still awaiting an official decision from the court.
“I still maintain that I committed nothing wrong,” Tola said. “I think there should be an official paper from the court and that [charges against] the other two should be dropped too.”
The Labour Ministry did not explain why it made the request or why it was not doing the same for the charges against Buntenh and Nguon Teang. Ministry spokesman Heng Sour did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Ley’s widow, Bou Rachana, repeated her belief Sunday that all three men are innocent.
“The complaint against these three people is not based on evidence and it can’t be trusted. The complaint is just to defame the three,” she said.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said the decision was up to the municipal court, which has no obligation to the Ministry of Labour.
“If they have the evidence to charge, it is their power. They don’t need to inform anyone else or any ministry,” he said.
Representatives from the court declined to comment.
Nguon Teang congratulated Tola on the news, but said he was not surprised as the case was manipulated by the government from the beginning.
For his part, Buntenh said he won’t appeal for charges to be dropped.
“They created [it] themselves and drop [it] themselves,” he said, claiming the case is politically motivated.
Buntenh said appeasing the garment industry might be a priority for the government, both because they are afraid of the sector’s capacity for protests, and to preserve beneficial trade agreements with the US and Europe.
“I’m not requesting, I’m not asking this dirty government to drop my case because they created [it],” he said.
Additional reporting by Andrew Nachemson