Garment Protest Trial Defendants Deny Charges

Defendants in a mass trial of 25 men and teenagers accused of joining a string of violent garment worker protests continued to profess their innocence during the second day of hearings at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday.

Twenty-three of the men were arrested in January during protests for higher garment factory wages that ended abruptly after military police shot into crowds of demonstrators outside a Phnom Penh factory on January 3, killing five people and injuring more than 40. The other two defendants were arrested during a clash between police and garment factory workers near Stung Meanchey bridge in November.

A police barricade blocks protesters from reaching Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday during the hearings of 25 men arrested during a series of garment worker protests in November and January. (Siv Channa)
A police barricade blocks protesters from reaching Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday during the hearings of 25 men arrested during a series of garment worker protests in November and January. (Siv Channa)

After months of delay, their trials started only late last month.

As their hearings resumed Tuesday morning, the 13 men arrested on January 3 along Veng Sreng Street in Pur Senchay district took turns giving the court much the same story of innocent bystanders erroneously arrested by police.

Defendant Chea Sarath said he was a moto-taxi driver who worked in the area and stopped to watch the commotion when he was attacked by police and arrested.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I just stood by to watch the demonstration because I wanted to know what was happening. When the military police arrested me, they fought me like I was an animal.”

Ros Sophorn told the court he was driving by the demonstrations on his way to Svay Rieng province, where his wife was due to give birth to their baby in a matter of days, when he was arrested.

“I did not join the demonstration…but at the time the military police arrested me and accused me of joining,” he said. “I was not involved, so please help to find justice for me.”

A pair of police officers on the scene that day told the court a very different story, of protesters mercilessly pelting them with pieces of stone and steel.

“When we arrived at Veng Sreng Street the anarchists attacked us with pieces of stone and with burning bottles of gasoline,” said officer Kim Vuthy. “First I was hit in the leg and then I was hit in the eye, and I was taken to the hospital…. Now I still can’t see with my right eye and my head still hurts.”

Mr. Vuthy asked for 40 million riel, about $10,000, to cover his medical expenses.

Kay Vet, another officer, said he was knocked unconscious by a flying piece of metal.

“I think that there was clearly a network leading the perpetrators because garment workers could not do something like this,” he said.

The defendants’ lawyer asked the officers if they specifically saw any of the accused taking part in the violence and the officers said they did not.

In a separate room of the courthouse, 10 men arrested at a protest outside the Yakjin garment factory on January 2 were also back on trial. Three of the men were questioned Tuesday, all of whom insisted they were innocent bystanders set upon by police without provocation.

Sokun Sambathpiseth said he had come to the demonstration to take pictures and video for a local NGO and told the court that police started pelting the crowd of protesting factory workers with rocks.

“The police were using violence on the protesters by throwing rocks at them first,” he said.

A lawyer for the factory, however, Cheng Penghab, accused Mr. Sambathpiseth of changing his story, having told an investigating judge that the demonstrators attacked the police first.

Mr. Sambathpiseth admitted to originally telling police that the protesters attacked first, but only because he was scared.

While the 10 men remain accused, the court did announce that Yakjin had dropped its demand for compensation.

In yet another courtroom, the trial of the two teenagers arrested in November came to a close in the early morning. Their verdict will be announced on May 30.

As for the 23 arrested on January 2 and 3, their trials will resume on May 20.

Yet to be questioned is the most high profile of the defendants, Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy, or IDEA, a union of tuk-tuk drivers and moto-taxi drivers.

He did not leave the court without a word, though. “We need freedom, we need justice,” he yelled as court officers bundled him into a van for the trip back to prison.

Outside the court, police had once again blocked off either end of Monireth Boulevard to keep hundreds of protesters from getting anywhere near the building.

Police in riot gear stood by, and at each end of the street, behind a line of metal barricades, fire trucks were parked with their water cannon facing the crowd. To prevent protesters from squeezing through cracks in the barricades, as some did during the first day of hearings last month, police bound them tightly together with metal wires.

None of it dampened the spirit of the protesters, who came with signs and banners and kept up a steady stream of speeches and chants through loudspeakers driven up to the barricades on tuk-tuks. There they prayed for the acquittal of all the men on trial and release for the 22 still being denied bail.

“Release my father without condition,” Mr. Pao’s eight-year-old son, Oum Sokun, yelled over the barricades toward the courthouse. “My father did nothing wrong, he is innocent.”

Nhel Pheap, a farmer and a member of Mr. Pao’s union, said it was the officers who shot and killed demonstrators on January 3 who ought to be on trial.

“The authorities arrested the poor and innocent people, but the court never gives them justice because they do not have money or connections to powerful people,” he said, echoing a common complaint about the country’s courts. “They never arrested the killers or the people who committed the crime.”

(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)

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