[Statement] Cambodia: Verdict against Chhim Sithar and labour rights defenders another blow to Cambodia’s civic space
26 May 2023 9:09 am
(Bangkok, 26 May 2023) – The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) calls for quashing the convictions of NagaWorld union leader Chhim Sithar alongside eight members of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU).
FORUM-ASIA strongly condemns the verdict given on 25 May 2023 by a Phnom Penh municipal court. The trade unionists were convicted of ‘incitement to commit a felony or disturb social security’ under Criminal Code Articles 494 and 495.
Sithar was sentenced to two years in prison. Meanwhile, the other union members were sentenced to one to one and a half years in prison and received suspended sentences or judicial supervision.
‘We urge the court to overturn the verdict as Cambodian authorities are abusing the criminal justice system by targeting union leaders and other labour rights advocates. We call on the Cambodian Government to immediately release Sithar. This is the umpteenth unfair decision that exemplifies the government’s contempt for democratic principles as well as Hun Sen’s attempts to silence critical voices months before the national elections,’ said Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA.
Erosion of Cambodia’s Civic Space
Alongside other union members, Sithar was first arrested in January 2022 and held in pre-trial detention for two months after being charged with incitement to commit a crime for leading a peaceful strike demanding higher wages for workers and the reinstatement of hundreds of union members who believe they were unjustly fired in December 2021. In response to the peaceful protest, authorities blocked roads, violently dragged protesters, and banished them into the city’s outskirts. Many protesters–mostly female union members–were physically assaulted and sexually harassed as they attempted to pass through barricades.
After being released on bail, Sithar was once again detained in November 2022 for allegedly violating her bail by travelling abroad to join a trade union conference without court approval. However, Sithar and her lawyers were never informed of such bail conditions. Since then, Sithar has remained in detention while awaiting trial.
The trial against Sithar and her eight co-defendants–Chhim Sokhorn, Hay Sopheap, Kleang Soben, Ry Sovandy, Sok Kongkea, Sok Narith, Sun Sreypich, and Touch Sereymeas–began in January 2023. During the trial, Sithar stated that the LRSU has followed all legal protocols for their protest against mass layoffs and alleged union-busting, only launching the strike after all viable mediation efforts were exhausted. Meanwhile, prosecutors claimed that Sithar and LRSU members are guilty of leading a strike for more than a year even after authorities have declared the strike to be illegal.
Nevertheless, in February 2023, Sithar won the prestigious Human Rights Defenders Award– from the US Department of State–for her exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for the promotion and protection of universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Call to Action
The verdict against labour rights defenders like Sithar demonstrates how civic and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia are eroding. It sets a chilling precedent among activists, thereby discouraging all defenders from freely pursuing their work and advocacies. The verdict also sets an alarming tone for the country’s upcoming elections.
FORUM-ASIA urges the Cambodian Government to stop using repressive tools for silencing political opponents, human rights defenders, and independent media.
‘The court’s decision is yet another blow to civic space, as well as an attack on unions and workers fighting for basic rights. The charges are politically motivated. Sithar and the LRSU are merely defending the rights of workers and exercising their freedom of peaceful assembly. Their actions cannot be considered a threat to national security,’ said Bacalso.
FORUM-ASIA reminds the Cambodian Government of its obligations to uphold people’s fundamental freedoms. The Cambodian Constitution guarantees the right to protest, as well as the freedoms of association, expression, peaceful assembly, press and publication. In addition, Article 319 of the Cambodian Labour Law guarantees the right to strike.
The verdict against Sithar and LRSU members undermines workers’ rights to organise, bargain collectively, and protest.
In solidarity with Sithar and her co-defendants, FORUM-ASIA calls on the Cambodian authorities to respect the workers’ right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
We urge the government to end its increasingly violent campaign of repression and harassment against union activists, environmental campaigners, opposition politicians, and media workers. It should refrain from using the charge of ‘incitement to commit a felony’ against trade unionists.
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) is a network of 85 member organisations across 23 countries, mainly in Asia. Founded in 1991, FORUM-ASIA works to strengthen movements for human rights and sustainable development through research, advocacy, capacity development and solidarity actions in Asia and beyond. It has consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and consultative relationship with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. The FORUM-ASIA Secretariat is based in Bangkok, with offices in Jakarta, Geneva and Kathmandu. www.forum-asia.org
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- East Asia – ASEAN Programme, FORUM-ASIA, [email protected]
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- Communication and Media Programme, FORUM-ASIA, [email protected]