Cambodian court upholds verdict keeping NagaWorld union leader in jail

A Cambodian court upheld a verdict detaining Chhim Sithor, a union leader involved in the NagaWorld Hotel and Casino strike in which hundreds of workers have been striking to demand better wages and working conditions. 

Chhim Sithor was arrested after returning to Cambodia from a labor conference in Australia on Nov. 26 for violating bail conditions that apparently restricted her from leaving the country. 

Her arrest was condemned by NagaWorld strikers, civil society officials, and the U.S. State Department. 

Police initially arrested Chhim Sithar back in Dec. 2021, charging her with “inciting social chaos” for leading a strike at the NagaWorld Hotel and Entertainment Complex, one of the world’s most profitable gambling centers located in the capital of Phnom Penh. 

Chhim Sithor’s defense lawyer has argued that she was never properly informed of the travel restrictions against her. 

Thousands of NagaWorld employees walked off their jobs during that strike, demanding higher wages and the reinstatement of eight jailed union leaders and nearly 370 others they said were unjustly fired from the casino, owned by Malaysian billionaire Tan Sri Chen Lip Keong. 

Since then, Cambodian authorities have claimed that the strike was illegal and the product of alleged foreign donations.

The NagaWorld union’s vice president, Chhim Sokhon, attended the court hearing and told RFA she was “sad and also disappointed” about the decision. She added that although Chhim Sithor appeared pale during the hearing, she conveyed a message to her fellow strikers that she is strong, asking them not to worry about her health. 

“I knew that her health must have some problems because I had experienced living in prison. It is not easy, as our normal life outside. There are many problems,” Chhim Sokhon said.

Chhim Sothron’s defense lawyer, Sam Chamroeun, criticized the decision by the Court of Appeal in Cambodia’s capital, saying it did not provide justice for his client since she was unaware of the ban on her leaving the country, adding that he plans to appeal the decision to Cambodia’s Supreme Court. 

“We feel sorry for the procedural error that made the court send my client back to prison,” he said. “My client did not know about the ban.”

Her defense lawyers had previously requested records of the original trial files to see if they included bail conditions, but the court denied the request. 

Am Sam Ath, director-general at the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, known as LICADHO, which provided Chhim Sithron’s lawyers, also said he was disappointed with the court’s decision.

“Chhim Sithor unjustly suffered due to procedural errors of the court and the authorities. [She] should not be detained anymore, because the continued detention of Chhim Sithor is not beneficial for Cambodia,” he told RFA. “The European Union is still urging Cambodia to restore democracy and respect for human rights, and they are watching the case of Chhim Sithor.”

In November, Australian MP Julian Hill, who met with Chhim Sithar in Melbourne, said he was shocked by her latest arrest, saying the accusation that she had breached her bail conditions was nonsense because no one informed her of them. 

“This is outrageous,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Another incident of Hun Sen’s gangster regime attacking union leaders for doing their job.”

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