PHNOM PENH —
Cambodia’s Appeals Court on Tuesday rejected a request for bail by 21 people who have been held in custody for more than a month. The defendants were arrested following last month’s garment sector protests in which security forces shot dead at least four people and injured dozens more. Rights groups have condemned the ruling.
The defendants are charged with intentional violence and destruction of property.
Their plight prompted protests in recent weeks at some Cambodian embassies overseas. International rights groups and unions have also expressed support for those arrested.
None of the 21 defendants was brought to court by the authorities for the hearing. Judges barred the media and monitors from entering the courtroom.
In rejecting their application for bail, the Appeals Court told defense lawyers that their clients would not be released because they were deemed a flight risk, or alternatively, that freeing them could jeopardize public order.
Speaking outside the court after the ruling, defense lawyer Sam Sokung condemned the decision, which he said breached not only Cambodian law but also the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, known as the ICCPR.
“As the lawyers we feel so sad when I hear the judge decide like this because it is [an] injustice to my clients," he told reporters. " It is not good because the decision violates the law - the Article 203 and 205 - and the ICCPR also.”
In recent months Cambodia’s rights record has worsened considerably following July’s general election, which the authoritarian ruling party won by a surprisingly narrow margin. A general ban on public gatherings remains in effect.
At the U.N. Human Rights Council's meeting in Geneva late last month, a Cambodian official responded to numerous criticisms of the rights situation by insisting that the measures the government had taken were necessary to maintain stability and to prevent damage to property.
The garment sector protests have taken on a distinctly political tinge: many workers support the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which ahead of last year’s ballot pledged to increase the minimum wage to $150. The opposition has strongly supported the workers’ demands.
On Tuesday, rights groups condemned the court’s decision as a farce.
In a statement, Ou Virak, who heads the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the appellate ruling came despite serious concerns about the health of some of the 21 defendants.
Ou Virak said the decision to deny bail showed the entire episode was nothing less than an effort by the government to silence its critics using a pliant judiciary. He decried the ruling as an attack on freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.
Cambodia’s garment industry is the country’s key foreign exchange earner - worth more than $5 billion last year, mostly in exports to the United States and the European Union. The sector is also the country’s biggest formal employer, with 400,000 workers, who make clothes for some of the West’s biggest brands.
But wages have not kept pace with inflation, and the number of days lost to strikes has increased as a result. Last year, around one million days were lost - the worst in the sector’s two-decade history.
In December, the government ordered the minimum wage increased to $95; many garment workers had expected a rise to $160. They have rejected December’s increase as insufficient.
Military police shot dead at least four people during violence in January. Dozens of other people were injured.
The authorities have refused to investigate whether the security forces acted unlawfully during the country’s worst clashes involving police in years. Instead, authorities have gone after protesters and rights activists.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokung said he went to the court clerk immediately after the ruling to file an appeal to the Supreme Court.
“But the clerk said we must write the appeal letter to the clerk this afternoon. And [so] I will come again to meet the clerk and appeal to the Supreme Court,” he explained.
Prior to the hearing, some of the estimated 200 people gathered outside the court were confident that a number of those imprisoned would be freed. Their optimism was buoyed after another judge on Friday ordered that two of the original 23 defendants be set free.
In response to Tuesday’s ruling, eight garment sector unions said they will decide Wednesday how best to respond. Late last week those same unions threatened a nationwide strike unless all of the defendants were released.