PHNOM PENH — A Cambodian court said Friday it has found 23 people, including unionists and workers, guilty of violent acts committed during January’s deadly garment worker strike but it issued suspended sentences and freed the defendants.
The result comes as a relief to activists and rights groups who have been campaigning for their release since their arrests in January.
“It was the best realistic outcome possible,” said David Welsh, the Cambodia country director for the Solidarity Center — an organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO that advocates for labor rights worldwide. “The most important thing is, for the families, that they were released after four horrible months.”
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court handed down suspended sentences of up to four-and-a-half years to the various defendants, who included bystanders as well as protesters. Charges ranged from property damage to causing violence.
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The 23 — as they have been labeled by rights groups — were arrested Jan. 2 and 3 when strikes calling for a raise of the country’s minimum wage to $160 a month escalated and security forces opened fire on protesters, killing at least five people and injuring more than 40.
The government has justified the use of force as necessary to maintain order, and no charges have been laid against police or military forces for their use of ammunition.
The decision to release the 23 comes in the same week that international unions and major brands, including Hennes & Mauritz, Levi’s and Gap, met with the government to voice their concerns over the January crackdown and subsequent trial. Brands buying from Cambodia’s $5 billion garment industry have long called for a fair treatment of the 23 since they were arrested.
“The outcome of the judicial process for the detainees must be based on evidence and stands up to international scrutiny to build trust and confidence,” read a statement from 30 global brands and international trade unions, released on Wednesday following the May 26 meeting with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon.
“Those who shot at demonstrators should be brought to justice,” the statement reads.
Of the 23, one was already out on bail, the remaining 22 were released just after 11 a.m. on Friday.
In a separate case on Friday, two people charged with similar offenses of property damage and causing violence — arrested during a November clash between police and striking workers from SL Garment factory — were also found guilty, but were released after their sentences were suspended.