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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Almost two dozen Cambodian factory workers and rights activists went on trial Friday in connection with labor protests earlier this year that rocked Prime Minister Hun Sen's government.
Several hundred police blocked the street in front of the court where the 23 defendants face charges of instigating violence and damage to property. About 300 supporters gathered nearby to call for the charges to be dropped.
Authorities broke up the January protests demanding a higher minimum wage for garment factory workers, leaving at least four people dead. Textile exports are Cambodia's main foreign exchange earner.
Ny Chariya, senior investigator for the local human rights group Adhoc, said the judges and prosecutors on Friday seemed to have little interest in hearing the defense's case.
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.
Because of the large number of defendants, it was decided at Friday's hearing to handle the case in three separate trials. Proceedings are to resume next week.
The January 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 is calling for early elections and reform of the electoral process. Both sides said earlier this month they might be near a deal that would end the deadlock.
The minimum wage had been 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 Hun Sen warned them to keep out of politics.
Street demonstrations in the capital were also indefinitely banned after the protests, hindering the ability of the opposition to hold political rallies.