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Labor Activists Released on Suspended Sentences

Anti-government protesters who had been in prison since their arrest in January, wave from atop a truck during a rally, in Phnom Penh, file photo.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday issued a verdict in the case of 23 labor activists and two minors, finding them guilty of charges related to violent demonstrations but releasing them on suspended sentences. Four of the accused were fined about $2,000.

The decision brings to a close a trial series that was widely criticized as deeply flawed and as an attempt to curtail future demonstrations, following violent crackdowns on labor protesters in January and November.

Defense attorney Sam Sokong said he would discuss the prospect of appeal with his clients.

Am Sam Ath, lead investigator for the rights group Licadho, said following Friday’s verdict that the activists were released only because the “political situation has improved.”

The UN’s office of human rights and the International Labor Organization welcomed the release of the 25—23 from January crackdowns and two from a November clash—but urged an investigation into at least six deaths in those operations.

“The evidence indicates that individuals were arrested when simply exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” the two agencies said in a joint statement.

A coalition of local rights groups, union leaders and activists issued a statement following the verdict, saying they were “gravely disappointed” in the suspended sentences, on charges that varied from instigation, aggravated violence, damage to property and obstruction.

“We have not seen justice here today,” Heng Samorn, general secretary of Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, said in a statement.

“They were all still convicted following trials which in fact confirmed the near total lack of evidence against them,” he said. “The circumstances of the arrests and the fact that the trials were all held at the same time indicate that these cases were wholly political in nature. The aim was not to seek justice but rather to try and bring an end to popular protest and make people afraid to take to the streets to claim their rights.”