Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday handed six union leaders suspended sentences and ordered them to pay compensation to their victims for their role in protests that occurred along Veng Sreng Boulevard in 2013.
“Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentences Ath Thorn, Chea Mony, Yang Sophorn, Pav Sina, Rong Chhun and Mam Nhim to two years and six months [each], and orders all the accused to pay five million riel (around $1,250) to victim Chea Sophany, and 30 million riel to victim Tim Vuthy,” Judge Im Vannak said at the hearing.
Judge Vannak said the four original charges against the six union leaders – intentional acts of violence with aggravating circumstances; intentionally causing damage with aggravating circumstances; threats to destroy followed by an order; blocking public traffic – were all changed to charges of instigating the acts.
In late 2013, factory workers protested along Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard demanding an increase in the minimum wage to $160 per month, after the government had initially raised it to $95 from $80.
The protests were supported by the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was also demanding a vote recount for the 2013 national election. The weeks-long protest ended in violence.
Veal Vong commune deputy police chief Tim Vuthy who was one of those injured in the protest filed a complaint to the court, along with Ken Loo of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.
Vuthy said he agreed with the decision and wouldn’t appeal.
None of the six accused union leaders was present in court on Tuesday, but two, speaking by phone, claimed the decision was unjust.
Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions president Yang Sophorn said: “I see it is an unjust decision because I did not destroy the property of a company or other people. I was not there.
“Why have I been sued and required to pay compensation with a two and half year prison term? Yes, the court suspended the term, but I was still found guilty."
“With this decision, we can see that the government is not willing to help us with honesty or to help unions exercise their work smoothly. It’s a burden for us.”
Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun said he would talk to his lawyer to appeal against the court’s decision.
“It is unjust. All of us did not commit the crimes that we have been charged with. The court did not give us justice, but instead severely sentenced us. We don’t earn a salary . . . we are simply [union] volunteers."
“I will talk to my lawyer and let him file my appeal. We cannot accept this unjust decision. I think that the other unions may have the same idea,” Chhun said.
He said that although he was found guilty, he would continue his work to represent and protect the interests of union members and that he would hold firm in his “stance and willingness to work for the workers”.
Besides the Veng Sreng Boulevard protest case, judge Vannak also handed out verdicts for three other related incidents that occurred at different factories across Phnom Penh. Many other union leaders were found guilty but all received suspended sentences.
Prime Minister Hun Sen recently urged the relevant ministries to find a way to drop charges against union leaders or to quickly try their cases in order for them to resume their jobs.