A prominent union leader was released from prison on a suspended sentence on Friday after being convicted by Phnom Penh Municipal Court of what many believe were spurious drug trafficking charges.
Municipal Court Judge Din Sivuthy found 29-year-old Suos Chantha, a union leader at United Garment Factory in the capital’s Sen Sok district, guilty of drug trafficking and sentenced him to 10 months in prison, with three months of the sentence suspended.
Suos Chantha had served seven months and five days in pre-trial detention, and was therefore released on Friday.
“I do not know who planted the drugs on me,” Suos Chantha said in court, adding that someone had wanted to create problems for him because he was leading a defection of hundreds of workers to an alternate union.
Suos Chantha was charged with drug trafficking on November 19 last year, following his arrest when officials allegedly confiscated nine small packets of methamphetamines from his motorbike.
At the time of his arrest, Suos Chantha was in talks to lead a defection of around 1,000 workers from the government-aligned Independent and Democratic Union Federation to the independent CCAWDU, prompting claims that he was framed in retaliation for the move. Suos Chantha’s lawyer, Seng Sokkhim, expressed concern yesterday that officials who carried out the arrest were not summoned to testify at court.
“I don’t know why the court did not summon the Sen Sok district military police officials who arrested my client,” he said, adding that only municipal police officials were summoned.
Khun Tharo, programme officer at the US-based American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, questioned yesterday the circumstances surrounding Suos Chantha’s arrest.
“It seems like everything has been set up and it seems that something is behind the raid [on Suos Chantha],” he said. “When he decided to align with CCAWDU, this case started.”
Khun Tharo added that, according to the Labour Law, Suos Chantha would be unable to perform his duties as a union leader while on a suspended sentence.
CCAWDU president Ath Thorn said on Friday that he was consulting with Suos Chantha’s family about whether to file an appeal against the verdict.
On Wednesday, representatives from six rights groups and labour organisations, including Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights, sent a letter to Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, calling for Suos Chantha’s “immediate and unconditional release”.
Jan Beanland, Cambodia campaigner at Amnesty International, said yesterday that the organisation was “very disappointed” that Suos Chantha was convicted.
“We believe that the charges were unfounded and baseless, and that he was primarily targeted because of his activities as a union leader,” she said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MOM KUNTHEAR AND MARY KOZLOVSKI