Riot police officers gather to disperse protesters during a rally to call for the release of the detained anti-government protesters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday. Pic: AP.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian appeals court on Tuesday refused to release on bail 21 people arrested early last month in connection with anti-government protests.

The detainees are garment workers and rights activists arrested during protests focusing on demands for a higher minimum wage for factory workers. They were charged with causing violence and damage to property. At least four people were shot dead by police during the protests.

The protests, along with opposition demonstrations calling for new elections and demonstrations against land-grabbing, pose the biggest challenge in years to authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule.

Defense lawyer Sam Sokong told reporters that judges said the court feared that if these detainees were freed pending trial, it would affect public order and make it harder to conduct investigations. He said he would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

Two of the 23 people originally detained were freed on bail last week.

Some 300 supporters of the detainees gathered outside the court, and several burst into tears upon hearing the court’s ruling.

“This decision is a further attack on freedom of assembly and expression in Cambodia, where the message has already been made clear that people are not allowed to speak out for their rights,” Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said in a prepared statement.

“Since their arrest the 23 have repeatedly been denied their rights to a fair trial upheld in international and Cambodian law,” said the group’s statement. “They were held incommunicado by the authorities for five days, without access to lawyers, medical care or their families.”

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