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Cambodian protesters denied bail despite global concern

Twenty-one Cambodian activists and workers arrested during a bloody crackdown on a garment industry strike last month were denied bail on Tuesday, despite international appeals for their release.

PHNOM PENH: Twenty-one Cambodian activists and workers arrested during a bloody crackdown on a garment industry strike last month were denied bail on Tuesday, despite international appeals for their release.

The case has heightened concerns among rights campaigners about the recent suppression of street protests intended to challenge strongman premier Hun Sen's nearly three-decade rule.

At least four civilians were killed last month when police opened fire on protesting textile factory workers who were demanding a minimum wage of US$160 a month to make clothes for brands including Gap, Nike and H&M.

Police arrested 23 activists and workers during the crackdown. Two of the detainees were released on bail over the weekend while 16 others began a hunger strike on Sunday, according to prison authorities.

No date has yet been set for their trial. Rights groups say if convicted they could face up to five years' imprisonment on charges including committing intentional violence.

In an open letter to Hun Sen, a dozen international rights organisations on Monday urged authorities to release the detainees.

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

But at a closed-door hearing Tuesday, an appeals court in the capital Phnom Penh denied bail to the 21 workers and activists on the grounds that their release "would affect public order" and hinder legal procedures, defence lawyer Sam Sokoung told reporters.

He said the defence would appeal the decision at the Supreme Court.

The ruling dismayed about 200 protesters who had rallied outside the court, some crying and shouting: "The court is very unjust".

Local rights group the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) condemned the decision.

It urged the courts to drop all charges against the 23 demonstrators and called on authorities to bring those who killed the protesters to justice.

"As yet nobody has been held to account for the violence, highlighting the culture of impunity which plagues Cambodia," the group said.

The government has indefinitely banned demonstrations in the capital by supporters of the opposition, which accuses Hun Sen 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.

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