CIVICUS and Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) condemn the recent arbitrary arrest of labour activist, Chhim Sithar, and call for her immediate and unconditional release. The government of Cambodia must also stop the judicial harassment against her and other trade union activists in the country.
Chhim Sithar is the recently re-elected President of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU) - a worker’s union of Hong Kong owned casino NagaWorld. She was previously detained in January 2022 on charges of incitement under Article 494 and 495 of the Cambodia Criminal Code for her involvement in a protest calling on the company to reinstate 365 workers laid off in April 2021. She was released on bail in March 2022.
On 26 November 2022, she was arrested at the immigration of the Phnom Penh airport for allegedly violating her bail conditions. She had just returned from Australia, where she attended the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) World Conference. Sithar had left the country earlier this month without any restrictions. Neither Sithar nor her lawyers were informed about any bail conditions. The request from her lawyers to review the case file to understand the content of any bail conditions granted has been continuously denied.
Our organisations believe that the arrest of Chhim Sithar is a form of retaliation by the authorities for her continued activism despite the trumped-up charges that have been brought against her. Sithar is now in pre-trial detention in Correctional Centre 2, where there are concerns about her prison conditions.
“The government must halt the arbitrary detention of union leader Chhim Sithar and release her immediately and unconditionally. Denying her access to information on her bail conditions is a violation of due process and the rule of law which Cambodia has international obligations to uphold,” said Cornelius Hanung, Asia Advocacy and Campaigns Officer of CIVICUS.
MORE LRSU LEADERS FACE CRIMINAL CHARGES
At least nine other LRSU leaders and members who were previously imprisoned alongside Sithar continue to face criminal charges. Union members who have been on strike near the casino complex since December 2021 have faced systematic harassment and intimidation from the authorities. The authorities have blocked roads and dragged protesters, sometimes violently, onto city buses and driven them to the outskirts of the city. Protesters, mostly women union members, have been violently assaulted to stop them from passing the barricades near the casino and also targeted with sexual harassment. Strikers had also been detained at quarantine centres on charges of violating COVID-19 protocols
“We urge the government of Cambodia to respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and end the harassment and prosecution of union activists. Further, the international community must do more to stand in solidarity with Chhim Sithar and demand that the authorities as well as the company halt the persecution against the workers and instead seek a meaningful resolution to the dispute”, added FORUM-ASIA.
In January 2021, the International Labour Organization (ILO), expressed deep concern over the arrests of workers and union activists and stressed the fundamental importance of respect the freedom of association. Further, four UN experts condemned the arrests saying that “the pattern and manner of these arrests, appears to be an escalation in tactics used in previous cases that have occurred in Cambodia over recent years”. In September 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia raised concerns in his report about the targeting of NagaWorld trade union leaders through criminalisation and unfair dismissals for speaking up about violations of workers’ rights, with the COVID-19 pandemic being used by authorities as a pretext to stop strikes.
Civic space in Cambodia is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor