Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said an Australian lawmaker’s call for the release of Chhim Sithar, the head of labour union at NagaWorld, carries no legal weight.
Sithar – the newly elected president of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees (LRSU) at the integrated casino resort – was rearrested on November 26 at Phnom Penh International Airport and placed in pre-trial detention after returning from a 12-day trip to Australia.
Julian Hill, an MP in the House of Representatives and chair of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, made the call on November 28. He said Sithar was arrested for protesting to protect the rights of about 1,300 employees who were laid off by NagaWorld.
Malin dismissed the call as unimportant as it is irrelevant to the legal process.
“[Hill’s] comments have no bearing on the case. They are just the opinion of a single foreign government’s employee. His request cannot help her because it is not a legal means of defence. If he wants to help her, he is welcome to participate in the proceedings and provide a legal argument under the law and procedures of the Cambodian judiciary,” he said.
Hill claimed that the arrest was unreasonable.
“I drank coffee with her last week when she attended an International Trade Union Meeting in Melbourne, Australia. After she returned to Cambodia, she was arrested for violating a court ban when she was not aware about the court’s conditions,” he said.
“I call on the Cambodian government to immediately release Chhim Sithar and also call on the owners of NagaWorld Integrated Resort to end this ridiculous labour dispute. I will speak with the foreign affairs minister of Australia to see what our embassy can do in Cambodia,” he added.
In a November 29 statement, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said Sithar had been arrested for violating the ban on leaving Cambodia while still under court supervision.
“If the accused deliberately avoids the obligation of court supervision, the investigating judge may decide to place the accused in pre-trial detention,” it said, invoking article 230 of the Criminal Code.
Civil society organisations claimed that Sithar had no intent to flee the country because she had returned to the Kingdom after her Australian trip.
Sithar, along with other leaders of her union, was first arrested in January for allegedly inciting social chaos by leading NagaWorld employees on strike to demand that the company rehire laid-off workers. They claimed that the employees were targeted for their union activism, while NagaWorld said they were merely casualties of the pandemic-related economic downturn.
They were held in pre-trial detention for two months and then released on bail in March.