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May 27, 2017

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Cambodia court sentences activists, garment workers

PHNOM PENH -- A Cambodian court Friday handed suspended sentences to 23 activists and garment workers arrested during a protest crackdown amid rising concerns over a textile industry that supplies a host of Western brands.

The defendants had been in custody since early January when police opened fire on protesting textile factory workers who were calling for a minimum wage of US$160 a month to make clothes for brands including Gap, Nike and H&M.

They were sentenced to between one and four-and-a-half years in prison for charges relating to the unrest by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday. The court suspended the remainder of the terms, meaning the 23 were able to walk free.

At least four civilians were killed in January's unrest, while a 16-year-old boy who was wounded is thought to be missing according to activists.

"While we welcome the release, we regret that they were convicted," said activist Am Sam Ath of local rights group Licadho.

The case has deepened concerns over the forceful reaction of strongman Hun Sen's regime to protest.

On Monday, representatives from brands including H&M, GAP, Puma and Levi's, along with the IndustriALL Global Union, met senior government figures to discuss the situation.

"For the first time global brands have acknowledged that they are prepared to cost in the price of higher salaries in Cambodia," said IndustriALL general secretary Jyrki Raina in a statement on Tuesday.

But the statement said one major brand had already slashed its dependency on Cambodian factories by 50 percent, adding that the firms had warned they would only continue to source clothing from the country if it could provide stability, transparency and the rule of law.

Cambodia's textile industry provides clothes and footwear for many in the West and employs some 650,000 local people.

Workers have staged months of strikes and street protest demanding better safety standards and a doubling of the minimum wage to US$160 a month, or about US$8 a day. So far the government has offered them US$100.

But they found themselves on the frontline of a bloody crackdown on dissent when they began to join forces with the opposition, the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

The defendants on Friday were greeted by several hundred supporters, including Buddhist monks, who cheered their release.

The court also handed suspended sentences to two other garment workers involved in November protests, when violent clashes between police and workers left one woman dead.

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