The media director for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Meach Sovannara was temporarily transferred from Prey Sar prison to the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital for what is being described as a “headache.”
Ministry of Interior prison department spokesperson Nut Savna told RFA’s Khmer Service that Meach Sovannara didn’t stay long in the Phnom Penh hospital before returning to the prison, where he is serving a 20-year sentence for taking part in a 2014 protest in the country’s capital.
Though Meach Sovannara and 10 other activists were jailed on insurrection charges for clashing with police over the closure of a protest site in the capital. Human rights organizations view the charges as an attempt by Prime Minister Hun Sen to use the courts to sideline his opposition.
“They reported that he seemed to have no real issue, just a headache,” Nut Savna told RFA. “Our officials sent him to the Russian Hospital. He did not stay in for long and they sent him back after the checkup, which means that his symptoms were not serious.”
A post on Meach Sovannara’s Facebook page said the warden sent him to the hospital for treatment because the prison lacks the ability to provide treatment after he got a severe headache due to an old wound.
Defense attorney Choung Chou Ngy told RFA that it is high time for the court to allow Meach Sovannara to receive proper and adequate treatment abroad.
In 2014 Meach Sovannara was seriously injured in an automobile accident while free on bail. He was treated in the U.S., but returned for his trial.
The driver of the car that rammed into the one driven by Meach Sovannara fled and was not identified, according to local news reports.
“I have been in a dispute with the authorities over his health,” Choung Chou Ngy said. “They should allow him to go for treatment outside the country, but the court banned him from going abroad.”
A case of politics
Am Sam Ath, a senior official with the human rights organization LICADHO, told RFA that he has little hope the court will allow Meach Sovannara to go abroad despite his ill health because the case is a political one.
“In such a situation, it is not likely that he can go for treatment outside,” he said. “That’s impossible if we look at the current political situation.”
While Meach Sovannara is in prison in Cambodia, he is also at the forefront of another legal battle in the U.S.
He is suing Hun Manet, the son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the country of Cambodia for the emotional and financial damage borne by Sovannarra’s family for, among other things, what the suit calls his wrongful imprisonment and torture.
Foreign governments and officials are generally protected by sovereignty from being brought to trial in the U.S., as they are in other countries. But Meach Sovannarra’s case is testing those exceptions.
The suit alleges that Hun Manet’s family connections and leadership role within Cambodia’s security forces make him liable for the emotional and financial damages borne by Sovannara’s family.
Hun Manet heads the Cambodian military’s anti-terror unit, is deputy chairman of the joint staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, and is deputy commander of the Prime Minister's Bodyguard Unit, an elite force that has often been at the center of complaints about rights abuses.
Hun Manet is widely viewed as the successor to his father, who has ruled the country for more than 30 years.
Though Meach Sovannara is faring poorly in Cambodian courts, his suit cleared its first legal hurdle in the U.S. this month when a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that the case can go forward.
In that case, Judge George H. Wu of the Central District Court of California required both parties to submit status reports to the court by Sept. 7 that include detailed plans about how they want the jurisdictional discovery process to proceed and what it should be included.
Kem Sokha Trial Set for Friday
While the Meach Sovannara case moves forward in the U.S., another case with political overtones is also moving ahead in Cambodia.
This Friday the Phnom Penh Municipal Court is scheduled to hear opening arguments in the government’s case against CNRP acting president Kem Sokha, who faces trial for failing to appear in court in a “prostitution” case tied to his alleged mistress.
Kem Sokha has been holed up in the CNRP headquarters since heavily armed police attempted to arrest him in May for ignoring court orders to appear as a witness in cases related to his alleged affair with Khom Chandaraty, who is also known as Srey Mom.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) criticized the trial on Tuesday for its “procedural flaws” and “weak” evidence.
“The weak evidentiary basis of the charges and the accompanying procedural flaws raise serious concerns about the fairness of the proceedings," OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said in a statement.
“We urge the authorities to adhere strictly to international fair trial standards during the criminal proceedings, including ensuring transparency in the administration of justice,” she said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the Cambodian government to drop its case against Kem Sokha on Tuesday, calling it politically motivated.
‘Politically motivated prosecution’
“The Kem Sokha case is but the latest politically motivated prosecution targeting Cambodia’s political opposition, human rights workers, social activists, and public intellectuals,” HRW Asia Director Brad Adams wrote recently in a blog post.
“After his party’s poor showing in the last national elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen is using every trick in the book to neutralize the opposition before the 2018 elections,” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan dismissed HRW’s appeal, telling RFA that the court is simply implementing Cambodian law.
“The fact is that Cambodian law bans anyone from involvement in corruption,” he said. “The second issue is that one has to respond to the court’s summons. That is the duty of the citizen. Do not turn this case into a political one.”
Kem Sokha’s defense attorney Sam Sokong told RFA that Sokha's defense team on Tuesday submitted a request to postpone court procedures until after the Cambodian Supreme Court Supreme issues a decision on a separate request to invalidate the proceedings.
“It is purely a legal procedure,” he said. “We should wait for the Supreme Court’s decision to avoid criticism.”
The Cambodia Daily on Wednesday quoted Ly Sophana, a spokesman for the court, as saying the request would be denied.
Reported by Chandara Yang and Moniroth Morm for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.