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UN pressures Cambodia to release trade unionist

Despite its low-ranking court system, the government defends Chhim Sithar’s conviction and her two-year jail term
Chhim Sithar waves to supporters as she leaves Phnom Penh Municipal Court on May 25, 2023. The prominent trade unionist in Cambodia was jailed for incitement in May last year.

Chhim Sithar waves to supporters as she leaves Phnom Penh Municipal Court on May 25, 2023. The prominent trade unionist in Cambodia was jailed for incitement in May last year. (Photo: AFP)

 

Published: May 06, 2024 07:20 AM GMT
Updated: May 06, 2024 07:29 AM GMT

The United Nations Human Rights Office has urged the immediate release of a prominent trade unionist after Cambodia’s Supreme Court upheld her conviction and a two-year jail term.

Chhim Sithar was jailed for “incitement to felony or disturb social order” in May last year after leading a strike against mass layoffs at the NagaWorld Casino in Phnom Penh.

On May 3, a four-judge panel found convictions against her and seven other defendants appropriate.

UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Jeremy Laurence said they were convicted for simply exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, protected by Cambodia’s constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“She is the only one serving a jail term as others were given suspended sentences or monitoring orders. We call on the authorities to quash all their convictions,” he said.

He noted the right to peaceful assembly and association includes the right to hold meetings, sit-ins and strikes, and the right of individuals to interact and organize among themselves.

“A vibrant, strong and inclusive democracy that nurtures and respects a plurality of voices and opinions, including those that express discontent, is key to social and economic development.

“We urge Cambodia to fully uphold the human rights protections recognized under international law and create an environment where people can freely exercise their rights,” he said.

Cambodian courts have been sharply criticized since a government crackdown was launched in 2017 which resulted in bans on political parties from contesting elections and the rounding up of their political supporters.

According to the World Justice Project, Cambodia was ranked 141 out of 142 countries in its 2023 Rule of Law Index, one place behind Venezuela and one spot ahead of Afghanistan, Haiti, and the Congo, counties that shared last place.

Human rights groups say about 60 political prisoners are being held in Cambodia, including opposition leader Kem Sokha, who is serving a 27-year sentence, and Theary Seng, an American-Khmer lawyer and Bible editor who is serving a six-year term.

However, the Cambodian government has reacted angrily to suggestions that any of the political prisoners should be released early and its permanent mission in Geneva said Laurence’s comments amounted to contempt for the Cambodian judiciary’s competency and integrity.

It also said the mission “strongly deplores the misleading, selective and prejudiced” comments made by Laurence and Sithar's release “entirely remains within the discretion of the courts” whose decisions “are based on concrete evidence and strictly adhere to the due process”.

“The very essence of the separation of powers in a democratic system whereby the courts are independent implies that no other authorities could interfere or put pressure on the courts to drop the charges or quash the convictions,” it said.

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