PHNOM PENH (The Phnom Penh Post/Asia News Network): Senior judicial officials rejected claims by some civil society organisations (CSOs) that the arrest of NagaWorld unionist Chhim Sithar was unlawful, reiterating that the move followed due process.
Sithar, the newly elected president of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees (LRSU) at the integrated casino resort, was arrested on Nov 26 at Phnom Penh International Airport and placed in pre-trial detention after returning from a 12-day trip to Australia.
Sithar was first arrested in January on charges of incitement to commit a crime in relation to a strike she had led. She was released on bail in March.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court has ruled that she remain in custody for now for violating the court’s ban on leaving the country, which Sithar claimed to have been unaware of prior to her arrest.
Following her second arrest, nearly 70 CSOs and associations, as well as some foreign embassies, called for her release “immediately and unconditionally”.
In a Nov 28 joint statement, the CSOs, unions and community associations urged authorities to cease “persecuting” Sithar and other union leaders from the textile, hospitality and informal sectors as enemies.
“They represent the legitimate interests of many workers who have called on employers to respect labour laws and workers’ legal rights. The government should appreciate their heroism,” the statement said.
Khleang Soben, secretary-general of the LRSU, said the re-arrest of Sithar was illegal and violated her rights, noting that she had travelled to Thailand twice previously for medical check-ups without the authorities asserting that there was any ban on her travelling abroad.
She said Sithar had been attending the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) World Congress in Australia as an invited guest.
“I hope that this statement has some effect and can be heard by the head of government so that he can reconsider and look into the conduct of justice ministry officials.
"I would like to send the message that they should not use the judiciary system to protect this foreign gambling company. The best thing is to find a solution and end the dispute,” she said.
Khun Tharo, programme manager for the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL), said in a statement that Sithar should be protected by the law instead of persecuted by it.
He said the arrest of the prominent labour rights activist was a serious violation of human and labour rights, and that the court’s justification did not make sense based on the rule of law.
“For this case, as a [CSO] working to promote human and labour rights, we urge the court to consider reviewing their indictment in order to drop the charges against the union leader and other activists who have been unfairly charged,” he said.
Outgoing Australian ambassador to Cambodia Pablo Kang tweeted on Nov 29 that he had raised Sithar case with Minister of Justice Koeut Rith, including the “questionable basis of her arrest”.
The US Department of State also issued a statement on Nov 29 urging her release.
“We urge Cambodian authorities to release Chhim Sithar and all detained trade unionists exercising their rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, to drop all charges against them, and move to constructively resolve their disputes,” the statement said, while also renewing call for the release of US citizen Theary Seng who is serving a six-year sentence for “plotting” and incitement.
“We continue to call on the Cambodian government to uphold its labour rights obligations and commitments and mediate a resolution between NagaWorld and the labour union representing terminated employees,” the statement added.
Officials from the municipal court and Ministry of Justice have so far shown no signs of changing their stance.