A Cambodian court yesterday convicted almost two dozen factory workers and rights activists for instigating violence during protests that rocked the government earlier this year, but in a surprise move gave them suspended sentences and granted them freedom.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruled that the 23 defendants, who had been detained since their arrests in January, had served enough time behind bars and were free to return home.
Human rights groups welcomed their release but criticised the convictions, which carried suspended sentences ranging from one to 41/2 years.
They said the ruling was politically motivated to quiet criticism from both the political opposition and from Western clothing brands that are made in Cambodia.
Authorities cracked down on the January protests, which had been called to demand a higher minimum wage for garment factory workers, leaving at least four people dead. The crackdown drew criticism from human rights groups and drew attention to the conditions of the factory workers, who manufacture clothing for several global brands, including the Gap, H&M and Adidas.
"We regret that these people were detained several months in jail for crimes they never committed," said Am Sam Sath of the rights group Licadho. "The verdict today is clearly connected to the political situation and pressure from the big brands."
January's protests increased the pressure the government already faced from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which refused to take its seats in parliament and accused the ruling Cambodian People's Party of rigging July's general election.
The opposition has called for early elections and reform of the electoral process. Both sides said last month that they might be near a deal that would end the political deadlock. Many had anticipated the jailed garment workers could be freed as part of the deal.
The minimum wage was increased, but not as much as workers had demanded, and a widespread but short-lived strike accompanied the protests.
Four of the men convicted yesterday were ordered to pay fines of eight million riel (HK$15,100) for inciting the others to stage the protest.