The Phnom Penh Municipal Court and police held a joint-press conference on January 4 to clarify details concerning the arrest of nine former employees of the integrated resort NagaWorld and the charges brought against them, saying that the authorities had clear grounds for taking legal action.
More than 1,000 NagaWorld workers have been protesting since mid-December, demanding that the company reinstate 365 former employees who were laid off during the Covid-19 pandemic, with workers claiming that it was a move that specifically targeted union leaders and activists.
The municipal court on January 3 said the nine protesters were charged with “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code after staging protests for more than 10 consecutive days.
However, the police indicated on January 4 that only six out of the nine had been arrested and placed in pre-trial detention, while three other were currently fugitives. They also noted that 17 others were arrested on January 3 for questioning related to this matter.
Municipal deputy police chief Bun Sok Sekha said at the press conference that before they arrested the former employees and unionists, they had collected sufficient evidence on the preparation of the protests to bring charges.
The evidence consists of messages that he said contain incitement to commit violence against the police and the acceptance of financial support from organised groups inside and outside of Cambodia totalling tens of thousands of dollars in order to make the illegal protests move forward.
“In our investigation, we have collected a lot of evidence such as computers, smartphones, and other materials used to organise the protests. We have seen evidence that they were supported by two NGOs abroad and one NGO in Cambodia,” he said.
Municipal court prosecutor Seng Hieng, who also attended the press conference, said those who had been arrested have confessed to receiving illegal financial support to organise the protests and also admitted that they had incited other former NagaWorld workers to join them.
The prosecutor said that through interviews with the detainees, the authorities learned that they had intended to cause chaos and social insecurity, especially targeting against NagaWorld, while “hiding under the cover of peaceful protest”.
“It is not a small issue. What motivated this group to receive illegal financial support from outside and inside the country to organise this illegal movement? Moreover, the confessions from the suspects are consistent with the evidence that the police had collected and submitted to court,” he said.
Municipal police spokesman San Sok Seyha said on January 4 that the 17 others were still being questioned.
“Police are investigating to see whether they had any involvement in the incitement to stage an illegal movement. If our investigation finds clear evidence, we will send them to court like the six others. Otherwise, we will release them,” he said.
The protests and arrest of the former NagaWorld employees have been under the spotlight, gaining the attention and support of some NGOs, embassies and political parties.
“We are following closely the troubling arrests of NagaWorld union members for their peaceful protest and urge authorities to hear citizens, not silence them. Freedoms of speech, assembly and association are guaranteed in the Cambodian constitution,” the US embassy in Phnom Penh said in a press statement on January 4.
The Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) issued a statement on January 4 regarding the protests, claiming that the workers were held legally and in accordance with Cambodia’s labour laws and the law on trade unions.
GDP said it was saddened to see that the government had failed in its mediation duties and failed its duty to facilitate legal public protest by the former NagaWorld staff, instead opting to solve the situation by resorting to legal action against the unionists and activists. It urged the government to halt its legal action and solve the problems in a manner acceptable to both sides.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said that based on the information provided by the police at the press conference, it did not seem like the protest in front of NagaWorld was organised in a peaceful way but were rather organised with an intention to cause chaos to social security and create public disorder.
“According to the police findings, these were not protests related to working conditions or the exercise of rights to freedom of assembly or expression. If they have not organised any illegal actions, then they should be able to provide strong evidence in their defence in court,” he said.