PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian court on Friday 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 were 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 criticized the convictions, which carried suspended sentences ranging from one to 4 1/2 years. They said the ruling was politically motivated to quiet criticism from both the government's opposition and from Western clothing brands that are made in Cambodia.
Authorities cracked down on the January protests that 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 manufactured 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."
Rights activists have long questioned the fairness of Cambodia's judicial system, which they say is tainted by politics and allows impunity for the rich and well-connected.
January's protests nettled the government, already facing pressure 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 last 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. Labor unions have close links to the opposition, and Prime Minister Hun Sen warned them to keep out of politics.
Four of the men convicted Friday were ordered to pay fines of 8 million riel ($2,000) for inciting the others to stage the protest.