Cambodian riot police officers stand guard at a blocked main street near Phnom Penh Municipality Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday. Pic: AP.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian court has convicted almost two dozen factory workers and rights activists for instigating violence during protests that rocked the government earlier this year.

But in a surprise move, the court on Friday gave the 23 defendants suspended sentences of one to 4 1/2 years in prison, and granted them freedom.

The 23 had been in prison since being arrested after the January protests.

Authorities cracked down on the January protests that were called to demand a higher minimum wage for garment factory workers, leaving at least four people dead. The crackdown drew criticism from human rights groups and the opposition.

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.

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