A Cambodian court has jailed a prominent union leader for two years after she and other union members were found guilty of “incitement” over a strike at the country’s only casino, in a decision condemned by human rights groups and trade unionists.
A Phnom Penh court on Thursday found Chhim Sithar, leader of the Labour Rights Supported Union (LRSU) of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, and eight other current or former union members guilty of “incitement to commit a felony or disturb social security”.
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Sithar, who was arrested during a protest at the Nagaworld casino complex in January 2022, was taken to prison while the other defendants were given suspended sentences or terms of judicial supervision.
“The convictions of Chhim Sithar and the others is a blatant attack on unions and workers fighting for their fundamental rights,” Montse Ferrer, Amnesty International’s interim deputy regional director for research said in a statement. “This verdict is a reminder that the Cambodian government would rather side with corporations than protect the rights of its people.”
The long-running dispute at NagaWorld, which is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, began after company management in April 2021 announced they were firing more than 1,300 employees, about half of them union members.
“From the very start of the casino workers’ strike, the Cambodian government has sided with NagaWorld management to persecute Chhim Sithar and the union’s leaders and crush the strike,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of respecting workers’ rights to freedom of association, bargain collectively, and strike, the government has used every repressive trick in the book to intimidate their union.”
The NagaWorld dispute has unfolded amid a renewed crackdown on any opposition to the rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The main opposition party was forcibly dissolved ahead of the last elections in 2018, with its leader Kem Sokha tried for treason.
Kem Sokha was found guilty in March and sentenced to 27 years in prison.
On Thursday, the opposition was again barred from contesting in the election, which is scheduled to take place in July, after a court rejected its appeal against the Elections Commission’s decision to disqualify it from the process.
The authorities initially charged Sithar with “incitement” on January 3, 2022, and the next day plainclothes security officials violently arrested her as she attempted to join the continuing strike action – grabbing her around the neck and dragging her into a car.
After more than two months in detention, she was released on bail in March but then rearrested in November 2022 after she returned to Cambodia from the World Congress of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in Melbourne, and accused of violating bail conditions on international travel.
Neither she nor her lawyer had been informed about the travel restrictions, and she had travelled to Thailand in September and October without consequences.
Michele O’Neil, the president of the Australian Confederation of Trade Unions, condemned the verdict against Sithar and her fellow unionists.
“This is a clear case of the Cambodian government waging an anti-union campaign against Chhim Sithar and her union,” O’Neil said in a statement, urging the Cambodian government to release her immediately.