Senior judicial officials rejected claims by some civil society organisations (CSOs) that the arrest of NagaWorld unionist Chhim Sithar was unlawful, reiterating that the move followed due process.

Sithar, the newly elected president of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees (LRSU) at the integrated casino resort, was arrested on November 26 at Phnom Penh International Airport and placed in pre-trial detention after returning from a 12-day trip to Australia.

Sithar was first arrested in January on charges of incitement to commit a crime in relation to a strike she had led. She was released on bail in March.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court has ruled that she remain in custody for now for violating the court’s ban on leaving the country, which Sithar claimed to have been unaware of prior to her arrest.

Following her second arrest, nearly 70 CSOs and associations, as well as some foreign embassies, called for her release “immediately and unconditionally”.

In a November 28 joint statement, the CSOs, unions and community associations urged authorities to cease “persecuting” Sithar and other union leaders from the textile, hospitality and informal sectors as enemies.

“They represent the legitimate interests of many workers who have called on employers to respect labour laws and workers’ legal rights. The government should appreciate their heroism,” the statement said.

Khleang Soben, secretary-general of the LRSU, said the re-arrest of Sithar was illegal and violated her rights, noting that she had travelled to Thailand twice previously for medical check-ups without the authorities asserting that there was any ban on her travelling abroad.

She said Sithar had been attending the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) World Congress in Australia as an invited guest.

“I hope that this statement has some effect and can be heard by the head of government so that he can reconsider and look into the conduct of justice ministry officials. I would like to send the message that they should not use the judiciary system to protect this foreign gambling company. The best thing is to find a solution and end the dispute,” she said.

Khun Tharo, programme manager for the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL), said in a statement that Sithar should be protected by the law instead of persecuted by it.

He said the arrest of the prominent labour rights activist was a serious violation of human and labour rights, and that the court’s justification did not make sense based on the rule of law.

“For this case, as a [CSO] working to promote human and labour rights, we urge the court to consider reviewing their indictment in order to drop the charges against the union leader and other activists who have been unfairly charged,” he said.

Outgoing Australian ambassador to Cambodia Pablo Kang tweeted on November 29 that he had raised Sithar case with Minister of Justice Koeut Rith, including the “questionable basis of her arrest”.

The US Department of State also issued a statement on November 29 urging her release.

“We urge Cambodian authorities to release Chhim Sithar and all detained trade unionists exercising their rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, to drop all charges against them, and move to constructively resolve their disputes,” the statement said, while also renewing call for the release of US citizen Theary Seng who is serving a six-year sentence for “plotting” and incitement.

“We continue to call on the Cambodian government to uphold its labour rights obligations and commitments and mediate a resolution between NagaWorld and the labour union representing terminated employees,” the statement added.

Officials from the municipal court and Ministry of Justice have so far shown no signs of changing their stance.

In a statement released on November 29, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said: “Defendant Chhim Sithar left Cambodia without the permission of the investigating judge, which violated her judicial review obligations.”

Citing Article 230 of the Criminal Procedural Code, it said that if an accused person intentionally evades court supervision obligations, then the investigating judge may decide to detain the accused temporarily.

It said any claims that the accused had not received notice of the order regarding her court supervision obligations related to travel only serve to demonstrate her own irresponsible behaviour before the law.

It continued that when releasing the accused on bail, the investigating judge informed Sithar that she was placed under court supervision.

Likewise, justice ministry spokesman Chin Malin said those who criticised the arrest were well aware of Cambodia’s courtroom rules and regulations, but were pretending ignorance in order to protect the accused and cover up her violations of the terms of her bail.

He said that Sithar violated the court’s ban by going abroad, so the court carried out the usual procedure in such cases by putting her back into detention.

“Therefore, we ask those organisations to check the legal procedures before drawing any conclusions or making inferences and accusations just to cover for their friend’s wrongdoing,” said Malin.

He added that the authorities’ compliance with Cambodia’s legal procedures is not a violation of anyone’s rights or a case of anyone being persecuted.

“All of these procedures are stated clearly in our laws and – in a democratic society operating under the rule of law – they must be followed,” he said.

The spokesperson’s office of the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training issued a press statement on November 30 to clarify that the arrest of Sithar had nothing to do with the labour dispute itself and was merely a matter of legal procedure related to the conditions of her release on bail.

It said the ministry has been mediating in the dispute to resolve the issue based on the labour dispute procedures as stated in the law, and that the ministry will continue to attempt to find a solution acceptable to all parties.

The ministry noted that as of November 30, a total of 21 meetings regarding the dispute had been held and that 249 out of the 373 former NagaWorld workers have now agreed to accept compensation packages to end their employment contracts with the company.

It said it will continue to hold more meetings to resolve the matter. However, if both sides are unable to find common ground, they should file a complaint with the court.

The ministry called on all parties to the dispute to exercise restraint and participate in finding a solution based on the labour law, the law on trade unions and other relevant provisions.