Cambodian garment industry protesters go on trial

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Twenty-three Cambodian activists and workers arrested during a deadly crackdown on a garment industry strike in January went on trial Friday despite international appeals for their release.

The case has deepened concerns among human rights defenders about the recent suppression of street demonstrations intended to challenge strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen's nearly three-decade rule.

Rights groups say if convicted the 23 defendants - most of whom have been detained for months without bail - could face up to five years' imprisonment on charges including committing intentional violence.

Several hundred demonstrators gathered near the Phnom Penh Municipal Court as the trial began, holding a prayer at a police barricade amid cries of "Free the 23!"

At least four civilians were killed in early January when police opened fire on protesting textile factory workers who were calling for a minimum wage of US$160 (S$201) a month to make clothes for brands including Gap, Nike and H&M.

The International Trade Union Confederation has launched a campaign to "Free the 23", urging workers to lobby Cambodian embassies around the world.

Unionist Kong Athit, of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, denounced what he described as "politically-motivated charges" against the defendants.

"The workers did not hurt anybody," he told AFP as the accused appeared in two courtrooms filled with rights activists.

"They were just protesting for a wage to survive on," he added.

Separately, two other people went on trial on similar charges following a violent clash between garment workers and police in November during which a woman was shot dead.

In January the government banned demonstrations in the capital by supporters of Hun Sen's political rivals, who accuse the premier of vote-rigging in a national election last year.

Authorities have used force to quell recent street protests, at times using smoke grenades and electric batons to disperse demonstrators.

The authorities said in February they had lifted the ban but riot police last month violently dispersed protesters demanding a licence for an independent television station, saying they did not have permission to rally.