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Unionists' jailing compared with Bandith

Soam Chantha, the wife of a jailed union activist, cradles her newborn child outside of their home in Kampong Speu province.
Soam Chantha, the wife of a jailed union activist, cradles her newborn child outside of their home in Kampong Speu province. The 32-year-old garment factory worker is currently on maternity leave while her husband remains imprisoned following his arrest during worker demonstrations in June. PHA LINA

Unionists' jailing compared with Bandith

Since her husband was arrested in June and thrown in provincial prison to await trial, Soam Chantha, 32, has given birth to a baby boy.

“My husband hasn’t been able to hold his son yet because prison officials have not allowed him to,” the garment worker said yesterday as she fought back tears at her home in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Torng district.

Three months ago today, Chantha’s husband, Sem Sopheak, 32, was one of eight members of the Free Trade Union arrested over a violent incident at the Sabrina Garment factory, a supplier to sportswear giant Nike.

The men, who claim they are innocent, have spent every day since in pre-trial detention in the provincial prison, which does not segregate its convicted criminals from those awaiting trial.

“It’s so difficult without him,” continued Chantha, a Sabrina employee herself who now provides for her family using maternity-leave payments.

“My husband is innocent and should be released so he can support his family.”

At the same time the men have been locked up, police have failed to arrest former Bavet governor Chhouk Bandith, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison on June 25 for shooting three garment workers during a protest at a Puma supplier in Svay Rieng province in February last year.

The union members have been charged with inciting violence that injured 23 people, including police officers, and destroying property.

While the charges are hardly minor, FTU and rights groups yesterday criticised the authorities for “double standards” in the way they have treated the accused in each case.

“I’m not talking about the legality or illegality of the [Sabrina] strike, but it blatantly highlights the inconsistencies of the legal system,” said Dave Welsh, country manager for rights group Solidarity Center/ACILS. “It’s embarrassing a guilty man is … free despite calls from everyone … for his arrest, while some of the poorest workers in the world are languishing in pre-trial detention.

“If those eight were governors of various provinces, they’d be awaiting some kind of Mickey Mouse trial in their villas.”

While the union leaders could be found guilty when their trial reaches court, their families and the FTU said yesterday that they posed no threat to the community and their pre-trial detention was only putting more pressure on poor families struggling to survive.

“Chhouk Bandith shot workers and is free, yet these workers have spent three months in pre-trial detention,” said Sun Vanny, 33, president of FTU at the factory.

“They did not commit these crimes, and I think they were targeted because they are union members. It wasn’t them using sticks and stones to destroy company property – it was others who weren’t arrested.”

While a person can be ordered into pre-trial detention for a number of reasons, including if he or she is considered a flight risk or deemed likely to re-offend, the law states that pre-trial detention should only be used in exceptional circumstances.

But according to Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, the reality is that non-custodial pre-trial measures are rare.

“It is really only those who are able to pay a lawyer or afford bail money who escape pre-trial detention,” she said. “As those with money can often get out with bail money, the majority of pretrial detainees are generally poor.”

With major brands, including Nike and Puma, converging on Phnom Penh this week for a forum and talks with labour-rights groups, the FTU’s Vanny called on them to take more of an interest in the way authorities deal with garment workers who are either the victims or the alleged perpetrators of crimes.

“The buyers have to help find justice for workers and union members and free them from prison,” he said.

Under the law, a person can be kept in pre-trial detention for up to six months, meaning the eight accused might only be halfway to their trial.

When contacted yesterday, provincial judge Cheum Rithy said investigations into the case were continuing and a date for the union members’ trial was yet to be set.

“I still have to question a number of workers and union members,” he said.

Administrative officials at Sabrina could not be reached for comment yesterday, while Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia secretary-general Ken Loo said the matter was in the hands of the court and he did not want to comment in detail.

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