A Cambodian court sentences a union leader to 18 months in prison for comments on Facebook

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian labor union leader has been sentenced to 18 months in prison in connection with comments he made in a live broadcast on Facebook two years ago that criticized the arrest of a casino worker, an official of a local rights group said Wednesday.

The Cambodian Labor Confederation said the case was aimed at intimidating labor unions.

Morm Rithy, 35, a vice president of the confederation, was convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday on charges of incitement to commit a felony and discrediting a judicial decision, said Am Sam Ath, operations director of Licadho, one of the few local groups actively monitoring Cambodia’s rights situation.

The Cambodian government has long been accused of using the judicial system to persecute critics and political opponents. The government insists it promotes the rule of law under an electoral democracy, but political parties seen as mounting strong challenges to the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party have been dissolved by the courts or had their leaders jailed or harassed.

The verdict came less than a week after Cambodia’s top court upheld the two-year prison sentence of a prominent female labor union leader. 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 during a long-running strike of workers at a casino resort in Phnom Penh.

Cambodia under its former Prime Minister Hun Sen, who held power for almost four decades, was widely criticized for human rights abuses that included suppression of freedom of speech and association, and his government often persecuted opponents through the courts. Hun Sen was succeeded by his son, Hun Manet, last year, but there have been few signs of a more liberal atmosphere.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that Cambodia is effectively a one-party state with "control of all state institutions, political control of the judiciary, and systematic harassment and targeting of critics in the political opposition and civil society.”

The U.S. State Department’s latest annual report on human rights practices around the world, issued last month. listed “significant and systematic restrictions on workers’ freedom of association” among many issues credibly reported in Cambodia.

Morm Rithy was arrested Tuesday night after being sentenced in absentia earlier that day because his lawyer had a scheduling conflict.

Morm Rithy on his Facebook broadcast had been critical of how one of his union’s members, who worked at a casino in southern city of Sihanoukville, had been arrested, an action he described as unjust and unacceptable. After the broadcast, the casino’s owner filed a criminal complaint against him.

In addition to the prison sentence, the court fined Morm Rithy two million riel ($500).

The Cambodian Labor Confederation described the case against Morm Rithy as “an act of intimidation and harassment of the rights of workers’ representatives (and) obstruction of the exercise of trade union rights.” It also said it showed the rule of law in Cambodia is weak, and appealed for a review of the case by the government and a higher court.