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Lethal protest union leaders’ trial date set

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Protesters chant on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard in front of fires during garment industry protests that turned violent in January 2014. Pha Lina

Lethal protest union leaders’ trial date set

Phnom Penh Municipal Court has set this Friday as the start of the trial of six union leaders who were charged following protests after the 2013 national elections where demands to raise the minimum wage for garment factory workers turned violent.

A letter from prosecutor Ly Sophana to lawyer Choung Choungy, dated November 19 and obtained by The Post, said the municipal court will begin hearing the cases on Friday.

The cases resulted from the continuous protests that took place from December 25, 2013, to January 13, 2014.

Six presidents including those of the Free Trade Union (FTU) Chea Mony; Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) Ath Thorn; Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU) Yang Sophorn; Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW) Pav Sina; and Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) Rong Chhun face four charges.

They are: “Intentional acts of violence with aggravating circumstances”; “intentionally causing damage with aggravating circumstances”; “threats to destroy followed by an order”; and “blocking public traffic”. They face prison terms of up to five years if found guilty.

In late 2013, the workers protested along Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard to demand an increase in the wage to $160 after the government raised it to $95 from $80.

The protest coincided with the former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) holding a demonstration demanding ballot papers be recounted after the 2013 national elections in which the then opposition party won 55 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party took the remaining 68 seats.

At least two of the six union leaders told The Post that they had not received a summons from the court as of Sunday, but they would attend the hearing to defend themselves when they did.

CCU’s Chhun claimed he was not at the scene at the time the garment worker protest turned violent. He said the demonstration was “crushed by the military police and police” and resulted in the deaths of four protesters, while several more were injured.

“Ninety per cent of the protesting workers were unarmed women. We think the authorities should not use force to crack down on unarmed workers demanding a wage increase, causing some to lose their lives and others to suffer injuries. Until now, none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.

“It is unjust because those who used violence on the workers have not been charged. Instead, we the union leaders are facing trial. The work of union leaders is to protect working conditions and labour rights.

“We did not receive a good salary, and we were willing to work voluntarily because workers’ rights were not being respected. I was not even at the protest at the time [of the violence],” he said.

Chhun said he is facing three lawsuits, two at Phnom Penh Municipal Court and one at Kandal Provincial Court.

CTU’s Sophorn said on Sunday that she also hadn’t yet received a summons, but would attend the hearing in order to defend herself.

Prime Minister Hun Sen in November called for the courts to speed up the trials involving the union leaders. He also requested the ministries of Justice and Labour and Vocational Training to find ways to have the charges against them dropped.

The Ministry of Labour on Thursday told the union leaders to report their cases to the ministry before Monday, December 10.

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