American-Cambodian Human Rights Defender Theary Seng Convicted, Sentenced to Six Years in Prison

Phnom Penh, Cambodia –an American-Cambodian human rights and democracy activist Theary Seng was convicted of “conspiracy to commit treason” and “incitement to create gross chaos impacting public security.”  On June 14, 2022, she was sentenced to six years in prison on these charges, which are clearly a political tool being used to punish Ms. Seng for her outspoken criticism of the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen.  She was immediately taken into custody and was reportedly being taken to Prey Sar Prison outside Phnom Penh, later to Preah Vihear’s prison, where is very far from the capital city.

Photo by Heng Sinith/AP
Jared Genser, International Human Rights Lawyer

Ms. Seng was dressed for her final court appearance as Lady Liberty, pictured above.  As she told the media outside the courthouse:

I am Lady Liberty.
I am Freedom.
I am your breath.
You cannot live well without me.
I am the colors that enrich your life.
I am the music that feeds your soul.
I am the oxygen you breathe.
This autocratic regime wants to stop you from breathing.
This autocratic regime wants to imprison freedom.
Free Freedom!  Long live Liberty!

The political process against Ms. Seng began in November 2020 as part of a broader program by Hun Sen to crush dissent and hobble the democratic opposition in Cambodia.  Despite having no political party affiliation, Ms. Seng was initially charged as part of a mass trial of 41 other individuals, comprised mainly of former officials and members of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).  Her trial was subsequently separated and delayed, while other opposition leaders were convicted and sentenced to prison.

From the very beginning, the judicial process against Ms. Seng has been characterized by egregious human rights and due process violations.  Ms. Seng has never been presented with any information regarding the factual basis of the charges against her, making it impossible to prepare an effective defense.  Furthermore, based on her co-defendants and the regime’s history of misusing treason and incitement charges, she is being prosecuted solely for her outspoken criticism of the government and support of the opposition – and in particular her public support of the attempted return of CNRP leaders to Cambodia in November 2019.

“By detaining Theary on plainly fabricated national security charges, Hun Sen has violated a litany of her rights – and dealt yet another blow to Cambodia’s civic space,” said Jared Genser, pro bono international counsel to Ms. Seng.  “It is clear that Hun Sen feels greatly threatened by this courageous woman who speaks truth to power.”  Prior to her scheduled hearing on November 26, 2020, Mr. Genser and his team at Perseus Strategies submitted an urgent appeal to the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Cambodia and the freedom of opinion and expression, highlighting the abuses taking place in Ms. Seng’s case.

In recent months, Cambodia has come under intense scrutiny for its human rights record.  United Nations human rights experts criticized Cambodia for “weaponizing” its justice system to reduce civic space and target those who stand up for human rights, expressing alarm “that the courts are again being weaponized to silence any form of dissent, including peaceful activism that is protected under the right to freedom of expression.”  In October 2021, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia warned that the country is “backsliding” away from democracy, specifically calling on the regime to drop court cases and end the detention of those who disagree with the authorities.”

“We demand the Cambodia immediately and unconditionally release Ms. Seng, who is the newest political prisoner of the Hun Sen regime.  We will continue working tirelessly to defend the fundamental freedoms of the Cambodian people, and we will continue to keep you updated as this situation develops,” said Jared and his legal team.

Dr Nicole Ung from Cambodian Americans for Human Rights And Democracy (CAHRAD said, “This sentence is unacceptable given that she is an American citizen, exercising her fundamental freedoms, guaranteed by international law and treaties. This is a reminder of the Soviet Union exiling their dissidents to Siberia in the style of the “Goulag Archipelago” and of Cambodia’s Koh Tralach Prison Island under the French colonial regime. It is an indication of how much the Hun Sen regime fears Theary’s outspokenness about the truth.”

Cambodian human rights advocates around the world are renewing their calls for the US government and its allies around the world to place sanctions on the Hun Sen government and its apparatchiks (including the former and current ministers of justice, judges and prosecutors whom the American Bar Associations have documented their prosecutorial misconduct,  until it releases unconditionally all dissidents and political prisoners, makes systemic changes to its electoral and judicial system, holds free and fair elections and restores Freedom, Democracy and the rule of law to Cambodia as pledged in the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and subsequent UN treaties.

“We particularly ask the US and it’s allies to not recognize the results of the recent commune elections, nor any future elections and their resulting governments issued from these fraudulent practices until the above democratic conditions are met,” Dr. Ung added.

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