US joins protests over arrest of Cambodian labor leader

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The United States has joined local human rights groups in Cambodia in calling for the release of a labor union leader who was involved in a year-long protest at a casino and arrested last week upon her return from a trip abroad.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the United States was “deeply concerned” by the arrest of Chhim Sithar and urged that charges against her and other detained trade unionists for “exercising their rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly” be dropped. The statement Wednesday also called for the release of U.S. citizen Theary Seng, convicted and jailed in a separate political case.

Chhim Sithar, a union leader at the NagaWorld casino in the capital Phnom Penh, was first arrested in January after leading a demonstration of nearly 400 other dismissed employees who were demanding to be rehired. She had been released on bail in March after strong protests by rights groups and the international community.

She was arrested on Saturday at Phnom Penh International Airport after returning from a working trip to Australia. Authorities said she violated the terms of her bail by traveling abroad without court permission. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday said her action allowed her to be held in pre-trial detention.

She faces up to two years in prison if convicted on the original charge of incitement to commit felony by disturbing the social order.

The NagaWorld, as the sole legal casino located in Phnom Penh, is extremely lucrative but in late 2021 dismissed 373 of its employees on the grounds that the company had financially suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Labor union actions are not rare in Cambodia, but usually take place in outlying areas or in industrial estates in other provinces. The protest by the NagaWorld workers in central parts of the capital was unusually high-profile and drew police action.

The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training said in a statement Wednesday that 249 dismissed workers had accepted compensation under the labor law and dropped their demand to be rehired. It said 124 are still disputing their dismissal and that the ministry would continue negotiating with them.

The statement also said Chhim Sithar’s arrest on Saturday was not related to the labor dispute.

A statement by 69 Cambodian civil society and rights groups called on the Cambodian government “to stop being afraid of Chhim Sithar’s strength and bravery” and free her immediately and without conditions.

“Neither Sithar nor her lawyers were informed of any bail conditions. Her lawyers’ request to view her case file, which would have contained such bail conditions, was never granted, in violation of the Code of Criminal Procedure,“ said the statement. “Punishing people for failing to follow secret and undisclosed rules is an injustice and inconsistent with basic principles of the rule of law.”

Accusing the government of beating, arresting, sexually harassing and assaulting strikers, the statement called Chhim Sithar’s arrest “an unacceptable continuation of this failed policy of repression.”

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