PHNOM PENH - Twenty-three Cambodian activists and workers arrested during a deadly crackdown on a garment industry strike in January went on trial Friday despite international appeals for their release.
The case has deepened concerns among human rights defenders about the recent suppression of street demonstrations intended to challenge strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen's nearly three-decade rule.
Rights groups say if convicted the 23 defendants -- most of whom have been detained for months without bail -- could face up to five years' imprisonment on charges including committing intentional violence.
Several hundred demonstrators gathered near the Phnom Penh Municipal Court as the trial began, holding a prayer at a police barricade amid cries of "Free the 23!"
At least four civilians were killed in early January when police opened fire on protesting textile factory workers who were calling for a minimum wage of $160 a month to make clothes for brands including Gap, Nike and H&M.
The International Trade Union Confederation has launched a campaign to "Free the 23", urging workers to lobby Cambodian embassies around the world.