PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The municipal court here started the trial concerning 23 people arrested in early January during a violent suppression of striking garment workers.

To show their support for the detained, more than 200 people attempted to protest at the courthouse, prompting government security forces to employ barricades and riot gear.


The 23 unionists, workers and bystanders were arrested on Jan. 2 and 3, during a period when Cambodia was in the throes of a nationwide strike by garment workers protesting for a higher minimum wage of at least $160 a month. The protests came to a head on Jan. 3 when armed security forces opened fire on the striking workers in an industrial park on Veng Sreng Boulevard, killing at least five workers.


Since then, the arrested 23 have been unable to receive bail. Government critics say that their charges are politically motivated, alleging the ruling party is attempting to curb the freedom of assembly afforded to the country’s growing garment workforce, a demographic that is often aligned with the opposition party.


Since the crackdown, the government has issued a ban on gatherings, citing the need to maintain public order. It has also defended the use of force during protests, saying that it was out of self-defense.


The case of the 23 accused was split into two courtrooms, while in a third courtroom, two men stand trial accused for a Nov. 12 protest, in which workers clashed with security forces who opened fire on them. A food vendor who was not taking part in the protest was shot and killed by the police during these clashes.


Ny Chakrya, head of human rights and legal aid for local rights group Adhoc, was present during the questioning of the 10 men arrested on Jan. 2 when a military brigade cracked down on garment workers. He criticized the court proceedings, saying that the judges and prosecutors kept referring to two blurry photos of the scene as evidence.


“They have accused 10 people based on only two photos,” Mr. Chakrya said. “The problem is that the judge and the prosecutor are on the same side. If the defense lawyers asks the accused people about what happened or what the police and military police did to crack down on the demonstration, the judge and prosecutor would both block this line of questioning.”


The government has never assumed responsibility for the deaths of the five workers, and no one in the police and military police have faced any sort of punishment.


The court adjourned questioning at about 4 p.m., and is set to continue on May 6.

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