Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

NagaWorld Union Leaders’ Trial Nearing End, Court Schedules Closing Arguments

NagaWorld Union leader Chhim Sithar leaves the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after the first day of trial on February 21, 2023. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
NagaWorld Union leader Chhim Sithar leaves the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after the first day of trial on February 21, 2023. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The trial of NagaWorld union leader Chhim Sithar and eight union members continued on Friday, as the presiding judge declined to play the more than 50 audio recordings from Zoom meetings requested by the defendants and their lawyers. 

“I have asked the court to play the whole audio because it is the root cause of the accusations against me,” Sithar said during the hearing. She claimed that the judicial police had only extracted out of context clips to make a case against her.

The defendants face charges of incitement to disturb security for leading a strike in protest of mass layoffs and alleged union-busting for more than a year after authorities declared the strike illegal.

Since her trial began in January, Sithar has stated that her union followed all legal protocols for the strike. The union, Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU), has said it only launched the strike after all viable efforts at mediation had been exhausted.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court presiding judge Soeung Chakriya denied Sithar’s request to play the full audio recordings and instead played around 30 minutes of audio in which the union members discussed the procedure for holding a strike. 

“The court has carried out the procedure independently, we can’t satisfy all parties,” Chakriya said. 

The judge said the entire audio messages used as evidence were transcribed in the court record and could be cited by the defendants’ lawyers during their closing remarks, scheduled for May 3.

Sithar’s lawyer Sam Titheiha expressed disappointment that the full range of audio recordings would not be presented in the court to allow as part of what he said was necessary for a fair and just trial for the defendants.

“We are saddened because they should play all audio messages so we can verify the police reports [transcripts], and defendants can hear the recordings and can accept the accusations,” he said.  

The nine hearings so far have focused on how the unionists led the strike, the alleged impact on public streets, the financial means to sustain a year-long strike and the use of international funds by the union. 

Sithar and around 1,300 workers initiated the strike on December 18, 2021 after mass layoffs without full severance pay at Phnom Penh’s exclusively licensed casino NagaWorld. The union initially demanded the reinstatement of 365 laid off employees and around 100 employees have continued to protest despite facing violence, detention and threats.

Sithar’s eight co-defendants — Chhim Sokhorn, Hay Sopheap, Kleang Soben, Ry Sovandy, Sok Kongkea, Sok Narith, Sun Sreypich, and Touch Sereymeas — were arrested in January 2022 and placed in pre-trial detention and released on bail in March last year. Sithar was re-arrested in November last year and detained again for allegedly violating bail.  

Human rights NGO Licadho’s operations director Am Sam Ath, who has attended the hearings, said he did not believe the audio advanced the prosecution’s case and that sufficient evidence of incitement to criminal activity had yet been established.

The case appeared to be merely a labor dispute between employees and the management committee of NagaWorld casino, as opposed to a criminal case, Sam Ath said.

“We have not seen precise evidence pointing out the accusations with incitement to disturb social security based on the previous debates of the hearing,” he said.