(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release union president, Chhim Sithar, and drop the baseless criminal charges against her and eight other union members, Human Rights Watch said today.
On March 14, 2023, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court held a trial hearing in the case against Chhim Sithar, president of the Labor Rights Supported Union (LRSU) of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, and eight trade union members of LSRU. The court reportedly questioned LSRU members on their strike activities and sources of financial support and announced a resumption of the hearing for March 21.
“Cambodian authorities are misusing the criminal justice system to target a union president and other labor rights activists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “People like Chhim Sithar of the LRSU and other labor rights advocates face an increasingly uphill fight to protect the rights of workers as civic space narrows ahead of the scheduled national elections in July.”
The hearing, on the charge of “incitement to disturb social security,” included Sithar and the union members Chhim Sokhorn, Hay Sopheap, Kleang Soben, Ry Sovandy, Sok Kongkea, Sok Narith, Sun Sreypich, and Touch Sereymeas.
On January 3, 2022, Sithar was charged with “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code. The following day, plainclothes security officials approached Sithar in a crowd and violently arrested her by grabbing her around the neck and dragging her into a car as she attempted to join a well-publicized strike against the NagaWorld Casino in Phnom Penh.
On January 5, 2022 four United Nations human rights experts issued a news release stating that “[t]he 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 and resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of human rights defenders.” Furthermore, “[t]he latest charges and arrests are of particular concern as the country gears up for … national elections [in 2023]. This sends a chilling message to Cambodian people on their space to assemble freely.”
Sithar was held for 74 days in pretrial detention and released on bail in March 2022. On November 26, Sithar was returning from attending the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) World Congress in Australia when Cambodian authorities arrested her for allegedly violating bail conditions against overseas travel that neither she nor her lawyer had been informed of.
Since being released on bail, Sithar had twice traveled outside of Cambodia to Thailand, in September and October, and did not face any restrictions on her return. Sithar’s rearrest and detention appears to be related to her meeting with other trade unions at the ITUC World Congress in violation of her rights to freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said.
During the strike at NagaWorld, security force personnel slapped peacefully striking workers and forced them onto buses to break up protests, and arbitrarily detained union leaders and members. Sithar said at the time, “The authorities try to scare us. I am not scared to be rearrested. Even when I am not in prison, I cannot freely exercise my right to be a union leader. I cannot give up because of the threat of prison. I have to stand up for workers’ rights.”
Under international human rights law and standards, workers cannot be discriminated against or targeted for participating in trade union activities. This protection against anti-union discrimination includes dismissal for participating in union activity. The Cambodian government has an obligation under international human rights law not only to respect the rights of workers but also to protect these rights from abuse by private actors. These obligations are enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both treaties ratified by Cambodia, as well as in International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 87, which protects the right to freedom of association and the right to organize.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government should reverse its escalating attacks on trade unions, independent media, the political opposition, and human rights defenders as the July national elections approach,” Robertson said. “The European Union, United States, United Kingdom, and Cambodia’s other key trading partners should make it clear that such continued repression will affect ties long before election day.”