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Cambodia’s top court upholds Chhim Sithar’s conviction

Human rights group says the Supreme Court ruling means other defendants are at risk of jail
A supporter of Cambodia union leader Chhim Sithar holds up a placard outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh on May 25, 2023.

A supporter of Cambodia union leader Chhim Sithar holds up a placard outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on May 25, 2023. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 03, 2024 06:25 AM GMT
Updated: May 03, 2024 10:23 AM GMT

Cambodia’s Supreme Court upheld a conviction against prominent trade unionist Chhim Sithar on May 3, after she was jailed for incitement in May last year for leading a strike at the NagaWorld Casino in Phnom Penh.

Human rights group Licadho said a four-judge panel delivered its verdict upholding convictions for eight defendants. Their sentences range from one year to two years in prison, with Chhim Sithar the only defendant currently serving her two-year sentence.

“While Sithar is expected to be released later this year once she completes her sentence, today’s verdict puts five of the defendants at risk of immediate imprisonment,” it said in a statement.

Those five defendants; Chhim Sokhorn, Hay Sopheap, Kleang Soben, Sun Srey Pich, and Touch Sereymeas, were given 18-month court monitoring orders by the Phnom Penh Capital Court while another two defendants were given suspended sentences by a lower court.

Western governments, led by the United States, and human rights groups including Amnesty International have urged her immediate release alongside jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha and the American-Khmer Bible editor Theary Seng.

As president of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, Chhim Sithar had campaigned for improved severance pay and the reinstatement of 365 union leaders and delegates who were laid off in April 2021 amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Since the peaceful strike commenced in 2021, workers have been subjected to physical, verbal and sexual assault by local authorities and security personnel,” Licadho said.

Chhim Sithar was arrested after returning from Melbourne where she attended the International Trade Union Confederation World Congress. Authorities claimed she had breached bail conditions banning her from overseas travel, imposed in early 2022 when she was also for incitement.

A coalition of 69 NGOs, which have also called for her immediate and unconditional release, previously stressed that authorities had failed to inform Chhim Sithar or her lawyers about the travel ban and that she had had no problems leaving the country.

They said her bail conditions were “secret and undisclosed” and that she had also made two previous trips to Thailand without issue.

Chhim Sithar was arrested amid a broader crackdown on dissent and bans on political parties which enabled then-prime minister Hun Sen and his long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party to win elections in 2018 and 2023. Hun Sen transferred power to his eldest son Hun Manet last August.

Hun Sen has previously said that there would be no negotiations over the release of Chhim Sithar, Theary Seng, or Kem Sokha who are just three of 60 political prisoners, according to estimates by human rights groups.

In an address to the 53rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last June, Sina Seng said his sister Theary Seng had emerged as one of the highest-profile critics of Hun Sun following the launch of his widespread crackdown on democracy six years earlier.

“Theary’s case is part of a pattern of regime abuse and retaliation against democracy and human rights advocates. The regime has weaponized its court system to reduce civic engagement and to silence opposition,” he said while urging the release of all 60 political prisoners.

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