American lawyer says he’s worried about Theary Seng’s health, safety

‘She continues to be a threat to the government of Cambodia, which is … why they’re keeping her in jail.’
By Sovannarith Keo for RFA Khmer
2023.07.19
American lawyer says he’s worried about Theary Seng’s health, safety Cambodian-American lawyer Theary Seng, dressed in a pageant costume that reads “Lady Justice,” shouts slogans outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on May 3, 2022.
Credit: Heng Sinith/AP

Outspoken Cambodian-American lawyer and human rights defender Theary Seng, 52, is currently on a 10-day hunger strike from a remote jail in northern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province. 

Last June, she was sentenced to six years in prison on treason charges that stemmed from abortive efforts in 2019 to bring about the return to Cambodia of opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Her hunger strike began on Monday, five days after the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a judgment calling her detention “arbitrary, politically motivated, and in violation of international law.”

RFA Khmer Service spoke with her pro bono international human rights lawyer, Jared Genser, on Wednesday. He said he’ll use the working group’s report to build momentum for her case and to push for the United States to designate her case as “wrongfully detained” under the Levinson Act, a 2020 law that would allow sanctions to be imposed on individuals responsible for holding U.S. nationals hostage.

RFA: First of all, I want to know about Theary Seng’s condition in jail. We know that she launched a 10-day hunger strike in jail. How is it going now?

Jared Genser: We don’t have any direct information yet. We understand that she will have a visit shortly from someone. I’m not going to name them for their own security, but we will know a little bit more in the next day or two. 

She launched a 10-day hunger strike to protest her detention and that of other political prisoners and also to protest the forthcoming election, which with the disqualification of the Candlelight Party, quite clearly cannot be in any way considered free or fair. She is undergoing a kind of hunger strike where she’ll drink liquids, water in particular. 

But as her lawyer and her friend, I’m very worried about her health and safety. And obviously, she continues to be a threat to the government of Cambodia, which is, of course, why they’re keeping her in jail, despite the fact that all she did to get six years in prison for so-called treason charges was to post some critical things about the government on Facebook.

RFA: We learned that on July 12, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a judgment calling the cases “arbitrary detention, politically motivated, and a violation of international laws.” How significant is that and why did it take so long for the U.N. Working Group over a year after her arrest to issue this decision?

Jared Genser: I think in terms of the time frame for the U.N. to issue the decision, it’s actually a pretty typical time frame. It feels like a long time and obviously has been a long time. But in fact, I think for international tribunals, it's quite quick. If you were to take a case to the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights, it would be three to five years. The same for the European Court of Human Rights. So this is actually, for the international system, on the quicker side.

The working group, you know, undertook a very detailed analysis of the facts of the case, applied international law to those facts, and ultimately concluded that she was being detained illegally and in violation of international law, not only on the basis of her violation of her substantive rights, her right to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and political participation, but also in terms of just the egregious lack of due process in her trial.

And it has also called for her immediate and unconditional release. So I think that this will definitely help us as we work to build momentum, to put further pressure on Hun Sen and the regime going forward. I think, for that purpose, it's very valuable.

RFA: You mentioned about using her case with the U.N. Working Group to build momentum. How will you convince the U.S. government to consider her case under the Levinson Act?

Jared Genser: It’s a strange set of circumstances because we literally have had President Biden urge Hun Sen to release her, Secretary Blinken to do the same. We’ve had Samantha Power of USAID and the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia and a spokesperson for the State Department all coming out, and they’re using the word “unjustly detained” and all calling for her release. 

So on the one hand, we have all the key officials from the very top down who have all urged Hun Sen to release her. And ultimately, that's the most important thing that’s been going on, because at the end of the day, it makes very, very clear the position of the United States.

The bureaucratic process of the Levinson Act and making this formal determination is another matter. And it’s very strange that just the State Department is trying to explain that they’re calling for her release, the U.S. government calling for her release and that her detention is unjust. But that somehow being unjust is not the same as wrongful or unlawful. And this doesn’t make any sense when you look at the words and their definitions at all.

And so, you know, we’re going to have to continue to fight it out with the State Department. It does matter because we want her case referred to the office of the U.S. presidential envoy for hostage affairs, who can then work the case on a day to day basis. 

And so I think that we're just going to keep pressing ahead with our efforts. And the U.S. government hopefully will catch up soon enough.

RFA: How hopeful is it that the U.S. government will do so and how will it be significant for the case if the U.S. government considers her case as wrongfully detained?

Jared Genser: So, I mean, at the end of the day, when you’re trying to get any political prisoner out of jail anywhere in the world, you have to escalate the cost for the government above the benefits as much as possible. 

Ultimately, with the U.N. judgment and with the State Department again just last week calling for her release, that will enable us to also engage governments in Europe and around the world on her behalf and will enable us to get higher level media attention.

RFA: My last question. Cambodians will go to polls on Sunday. Many national and international observers think that this election is a “sham election” whereby the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is running unopposed. And then for Cambodian people, they seemingly have no options because the party that they love, the Candlelight Party, was disqualified from the election. The opposition leaders are calling for their supporters to go to vote but to spoil their ballots. If you were the Cambodian people, what would you do in such circumstances?

Jared Genser: Obviously, Hun Sen is going to try to do everything possible to increase turnout. I'm sure that government workers will be mandated to come and vote. The best scenario here would be to have the lowest possible turnout possible. At the end of day, though, I'm not going to believe any of the numbers coming out of the Cambodian electoral commission because the whole process has been rigged. 

So, even if people come out or don’t come out and refuse to turn out, I think the numbers are still going to show a large turnout because, you know, Hun Sen can report whatever numbers he wants and there’ll be nobody to oppose those numbers. 

I think that the best thing a Cambodian person could do in this case is to boycott the election. But that’s obviously not a long term solution.

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