Cambodia’s top court upholds prison sentence for union leader involved in strike

Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Friday upheld the two-year prison sentence of labor union leader Chhim Sithar who led a long-running strike against the country’s biggest casino. Chhim Sithar, president of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, had originally been convicted in May 2023 of incitement to commit a felony. She had been leading a strike that began in December 2021 to protest mass layoffs and alleged union-busting at the NagaWorld casino in the capital Phnom Penh, and was arrested and charged after a January 2022 demonstration of dismissed employees who were demanding to be rehired. NagaWorld in late 2021 had fired 373 employees amid financial struggles related to the coronavirus pandemic. Some dismissed workers continue to hold regular protests, appealing for Chhim Sithar to be released and for them to get their jobs back, Am Sam Ath of the rights groups Licadho said Friday. More than 200 others had accepted compensation under the labor law and dropped their demands, the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training announced in December 2022. Supporters of Chhim Sithar gathered outside the Supreme Court on Friday with banners calling for her release on appeal. The court also upheld the convictions and sentences of eight of her fellow union members. Five received sentences of 1 1/2 years each. Three others had been given suspended sentences of one year each. Chhim Sithar could be released later this year when her prison term ends due to time already served before her conviction. NagaWorld is owned by a company controlled by the family of Malaysian billionaire Chen Lip Keong. The company received its casino license in 1994 and the property is now a huge integrated hotel-casino entertainment complex. Labor union actions had not been rare in Cambodia but usually had taken place at factories in outlying areas or in industrial estates in other provinces. The protest by the NagaWorld workers in the capital was unusually high-profile and drew criticism that was sometimes violent. In February last year, the U.S. Department of State named Chhim Sithar among 10 recipients around the globe of its annual Human Rights Defender Award. She was described by U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy as “a courageous and tenacious labor union leader who peacefully advocates for the rights of Cambodian workers.”