Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Court cases continue to hang over union leaders’ heads

Union leader Pav Sina speaks to media in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Picture taken on April 21, 2016. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Union leader Pav Sina speaks to media in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Picture taken on April 21, 2016. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

A number of union leaders have decried the fact that a spate of legal cases continue to hang over their heads despite pressure from Prime Minister Hun Sen to move the cases to trial or else drop charges.

Last week, the Labor Ministry sent a letter to 18 workers’ unions and federations asking them to submit progress reports updating the ministry on legal cases against a number of union officials. The letter referred to 99 specific criminal and civil cases against individual union leaders, some of which union officials reportedly believed had already been settled.

In November 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly stated that the legal cases against a number of union leaders should immediately be sent to trial or else the charges should be dropped. His comments came after several union leaders spoke out about the long-running legal proceedings’ impact on their work.

Eighteen independent union officials including Chea Mony, Ath Thorn, Yang Sophorn and Pav Sina have been sued by factory owners and government officials accusing them of incitement and intentionally causing damage during the nationwide strikes over the minimum wage in 2013 and 2017.

Ath Thorn, the president of Cambodian Labour Confederation, said that he is in the process of reviewing the court cases listed in the letter and will send a progress report updating the Labor Ministry on the cases as soon as possible.

“14 out 58 criminal cases have had charges dropped, and all 41 cases brought by civil parties remain unresolved,” he said.

Thorn told CamboJA that union leaders working at garment factories had continued to face persecution over the past few years, including being discriminated against in the workplace and sometimes fired for their union activities.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said that he was surprised to see a legal case dating from 2013 in the letter accusing him of intentionally causing property damage along with former opposition figure Sam Rainsy. The complaint was levelled by the owner of the Manhattan garment and textile factory.

“I have never known about that case because since 2013, I haven’t received any court warrant over that case,” he said. A spokesperson for the factory could not be reached for comment.

Sina told CamboJA that he had received seven or eight complaints that had been filed against him and his colleagues since the prime minister’s call for the cases to be resolved in 2018. Most cases reportedly related to charges of incitement, including incitement to commit violence, and intentionally causing property damage. In some of the cases named in the letter, the union leader said, he had already been convicted in absentia, or the charges had been dropped. All sentences against him had been suspended.

Sina denied that allegation from the Manhattan factory owner, saying that he was in no way linked to former opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

“It is a new case for me that I have never heard of,” he said. “I am surprised when they [Labor Ministry] said [they would determine] whether to end the case …  because I’m worried the court will conduct the trial and sentence me,” Sina said. He said he didn’t know why the letter had been sent to union leaders now. Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment.

Cambodia Informal Economic Reinforced Association president Din Puthy, who was among those asked to submit an update to the ministry, expressed his disappointment that a court case was still hanging over his head.

“We are concerned because if we are convicted or have a criminal record, we can’t hold a position in the association to help people and society,” he said.

Puthy said he has one case currently before the Court of Appeals after he was given a suspended sentence of one year in prison for allegedly committing violence against Poipet City police officer Chhean Piseth in 2016. The charge of violence was met with widespread disbelief after a video circulated on social media showing him exaggeratedly flopping onto the ground in front of Puthy’s SUV.

Puthy told CamboJA said that he had already been acquitted in two cases in 2018 stemming from protests he led along the Thai-Cambodian border in 2015 over the import tax and payments to border police, which he says significantly impacted workers’ livelihoods, and for protesting in 2014 over the demolition villagers’ homes in Poipet City.

Moeun Tola, executive director at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, said that continuing to persecute union leaders could damage the nation’s economy, which depends heavily on garment and textile manufacturing.

“I am concerned about the impact on Cambodia’s market related to the garment and footwear industry,” he said. Tola added that the United States congress was considering revising Cambodia’s tariff-free access to the US market through the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). Cambodia has already had customs duties imposed on 20 percent of exports to the European Union following the partial revocation of the Everything but Arms agreement. When the decision was announced, the European Commission cited “serious and systematic concerns related to human rights” as the reason for the treaty’s partial withdrawal.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Y Rin could not be reached for comment, nor spokespeople from the Ministry of Justice.