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PHNOM PENH, May 29 (Reuters) - A Cambodian court has acquitted six prominent union leaders who had been convicted of instigating violent anti-government protests, amid threats from the European Union to suspend the Southeast Asian country's duty-free trading access.
The European Union began a formal procedure last year to strip Cambodia of its "Everything but Arms (EBA)" initiative, following a July general election that returned Prime Minister Hun Sen to power after 33 years in office and gave his party all parliamentary seats.
"This (the acquittal) is strange and rare in Cambodia," said Ath Thon, the president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union, one of the six leaders found not guilty.
Hun Sen last year ordered authorities to ease pressure on labor union leaders, including speeding up or dropping any pending court cases against them, following moves by the European Union to end the EBA.
Cambodia's Appeal Court on Tuesday acquitted the six union leaders, all of whom had been given suspend jail terms of between eight months and four and a half years for leading anti-government protests in 2013 and 2014, Touch Tharith, a spokesman for the Appeal Court, told Reuters on Wednesday.
Tharith did not give a reason.
During one protest in 2014, military police opened fire on stone-throwing textile workers who were demanding higher wages. A human rights group said at least four people were killed and more than 20 wounded.
Thon attributed the release to EU pressure on Hun Sen's government.
"Under pressure from the European Union, the government has solved some cases," said Thon.
"But in public, they say they don't follow anyone's demands." (Reporting by Prak Chan Thul Editing by James Pearson and Nick Macfie)