Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Appeals Court Hears Challenge to 2014 Convictions from Garment Workers Protest

Vorn Pao (right), IDEA president, and Theng Savoeun (second to the left), CCFC president, arrive at the Court of Appeals in Phnom Penh for a hearing on August 17, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Vorn Pao (right), IDEA president, and Theng Savoeun (second to the left), CCFC president, arrive at the Court of Appeals in Phnom Penh for a hearing on August 17, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

The Court of Appeals held a hearing Thursday in a case dating back to 2014, when ten men were convicted of charges related to violence at demonstrations during a nationwide garment workers strike. The court’s verdict on the appeal is scheduled to be announced on September 29.

The ten people were arrested in January 2014 at a protest outside a South Korean-owned Yakjin factory in Phnom Penh’s Por Senchey district, where demonstrators demanded higher wages. Witnesses reported that military officials guarding the factory instigated clashes with protestors, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

Defendant Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democratic Informal Economy Association (IDEA), explained that on January 2, 2014 he went to the factory to monitor the situation after receiving information that workers were protesting.

“I am not satisfied that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted me because I was the victim of soldiers who beat me up almost to death,” he told the court Thursday. “It is very unfair for me that I was arrested and detained by the Special Forces Airborne 911 Unit.”

Pao and Theng Savoeun, president of Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community (CCFC), were present at the court while the other eight convicted men were tried in absentia.

On May 30, 2014, Theng Savouen, Vorn Pao, Chan Puthisak and Sokun Sambath Piseth were found guilty of instigating intentional acts of violence with aggravating circumstances based on Articles 28 and 218 of the criminal code. Reth Roatha, Nakry Vanda, Yong Sam, Chhim Thoeun, Teng Chanthy and Lorn San were found guilty of violence with aggravating circumstances. 

The men were handed prison sentences of up to four and a half years, but all had their sentences suspended and were released after the May 2014 hearing. Four were fined 8 million riels, about $2000.

Savoeun, who attended Thursday’s hearing, denied that he had instigated violence at the protest and called on the court to drop all of the charges.

“I do not agree with the Phnom Penh court’s decisions because I didn’t have any activity such as chanting or gestures [protesting],” Savoeun said in court. “I went there to take pictures for dissemination to the public.”

The Court of Appeal’s prosecutor Im Sophan asked the judges to consider the case according to the law, arguing that what the defendants were telling the court Thursday was the same as what they had said at their original trial at Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

Sam Sokong, the defense lawyer for the ten people convicted, has asked the higher court to annul the 2014 verdict, saying that his clients did not instigate the violence.

“As we have seen evidenced in video clips, soldiers used violence by beating up my clients,” he said. “Soldiers threw water bottles into groups of protesters and later used sticks and slingshots to crack down on protesters.”

He added that, during testimony given in the lower court, some witnesses did not directly say that the ten men had used violence against soldiers.

Special Forces Airborne 911 Unit Commander Chap Pheakdei could not be reached for comment.