Cambodia Garment Workers and Labour Activists Freed by Suspended Sentence Ruling
A group of demonstrators celebrate the verdict that suspended the sentences of the 23 people arrested during violent clashes between garment workers and security forces in Phnom PenhOmar Havana/Getty Images

A Cambodian court has handed suspended sentences to almost two dozen garment factory workers and rights activists accused of violence during strikes and protests that were brutally quelled by authorities earlier this year.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found 23 people guilty of intentional violence, including damage to public property, during strikes in the capital during January.

The defendants were freed as the court ruled they had served enough time behind bars since their arrest at the beginning of this year.

Human rights groups welcomed the decision to send them home but criticised the convictions, which carried suspended sentences ranging from one to over four years.

"We have not seen justice here today," said Heng Samorn, General Secretary of Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA).

Rights group LICADHO director, Naly Pilorge said: "It was clear throughout the trials that there was insufficient evidence even to accuse most of these men let alone convict them."

Activists said the ruling was politically motivated to quell criticism from Western clothing giants that purchase apparel from Cambodia and the government's opposition.

The opposition gained momentum during the protests as it backed workers who took to the streets. The employees demanded their minimum wage be doubled to $160 (£95) a month, and at the same time separately urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to end his 28-year rule over allegations of vote rigging.

"The circumstances of the arrests and the fact that the trials were all held at the same time indicate that these cases were wholly political in nature," Samorn said: "The aim was not to seek justice but rather to try and bring an end to popular protest and make people afraid to take to the streets to claim their rights."

January strikes were violently crushed by security forces that opened fire on protesters leaving at least four people dead.

The crackdown was condemned by human rights groups that urged western brands sourcing from Cambodia to speak out against the violence.

Garment workers' minimum wage was increased to $100 (£60), a month but the pay rise was refused by unions and workers who said it was too low.