Jailing of Theary Seng is a 'bellwether case' for Cambodia, lawyer says

Rights lawyer Jared Genser vows to "ensure that the costs outweigh the benefits of detaining" the activist-lawyer.
By Sovannarith Keo for RFA Khmer
Jailing of Theary Seng  is a 'bellwether case' for Cambodia,  lawyer says Cambodian American lawyer and activist Theary Seng, dressed as an Apsara dancer, and her pro bono lawyer Jared Genser [center] speak to the media as she arrives to continue her trial in the municipal court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Dec. 7, 2021.

International human rights lawyer Jared Genser is providing pro bono counsel to Cambodian-American lawyer and activist Theary Seng, who was sentenced to six years in prison in June on treason charges. She was sentenced on June 14 along with 50 other activists for their association with the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, once the main opposition in the country before it was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017. On Sept. 30 the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to deny bail to Theary Seng. Genser, a long-time friend of Theary Seng, spoke to RFA Khmer’s Sovannarith Keo about strategies to press for her release.

RFA: Among a lot of things going on with the Theary Seng case, the Supreme Court just denied her bail. Also, Cambodia’s Interior Ministry hasn’t replied to a request from her lawyer in Cambodia to have her transferred back from Preah Vihear prison to Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison. What do you make of all these latest developments?

Jared Genser: I think the government of Cambodia has yet to get the clear message that its impunity is not going to be tolerated. I think ultimately they will get that message and they'll understand that very clearly. I can't say I was surprised by the decision of the Supreme Court or by the lack of response in terms of transferring Theary back to Phnom Penh, but nonetheless, of course, I condemn those decisions and unequivocally Theary is undoubtedly along with many other political prisoners in Cambodia who's being detained for exercising her fundamental rights, her right to freedom of expression, to peaceful assembly and to political participation.

RFA: But the Hun Sen government chooses to uphold her detention rather than release her, per requests from the U.S government or the international community. In this sense, what are the consequences for the Hun Sen government if they choose to continue detaining her for as long as six years?

Jared Genser: Well, I think there is going to be an increasing amount of pressure on the government of Cambodia in a wide array of ways. I can say unequivocally based on my conversations in Washington and Europe and more broadly, that Theary's case is a bellwether case. What is happening to her is provides a great lens into what is happening in Cambodia today. And the longer that Hun Sen detains Theary, the more people will know about his repressive regime and its unwillingness to allow political dissen,t and the way in which he keeps his iron grip on power. So we are going to move now in many different directions to ensure that the costs outweigh the benefits of detaining Theary in really dramatic ways, and he'll ultimately have to make a judgment as to whether the costs are worth the benefits

RFA: In terms of effective advocacy, I see that there are a lot of international condemnations ahead of the ASEAN summit and immediately following her detention in mid-June. Do you see any expectation that there will be any leverage for the international community to put pressure on the Cambodian government to release her as soon as possible?

Jared Genser: Yes I think that there definitely will be. Again I don't want to get out front of what we're doing but there will be a couple of very high profile ways in which Hun Sen will understand quite clearly that the international community and the United States in particular is focusing on Theary's case and that of the other political prisoners. We're also of course going to be pressing President Biden to not meet with Hun Sen on a bilateral basis, but only agree to do so on a multilateral basis with the other ASEAN leaders. The longer that Hun Sen detains Theary and other political prisoners, the greater the consequences are going to be. 

RFA: Will there be a statement from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention?

Jared Genser: They have to go through an extended process. So it will take some time. But of course once we file the case we'll make public our submission to the U.N. so people can see what we were doing. We recently also had a very helpful report published by the Clooney Foundation for Justice and the American Bar Association. They had their own trial observer, an independent observer, observe her trial. And they recently came out with a very detailed report that gave the rating of F on an A to F scale, and condemned her trial as being totally inconsistent with the requirements of international law.

RFA: Talking about her conditions in the jail in a remote area in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province, we learn from her lawyer in Cambodia saying that she was denied from practicing her religion and also she got a Covid during her jail time, as well as the overcrowded conditions and poor conditions in the jail. What are your reactions to that?

Jared Genser: This is again, a really dumb move on the part of the government of Cambodia. I mean she is a very high profile political prisoner. And the reality is that she is being treated terribly. And of course you know, if someone with her level of public attention is being treated so badly, what does that mean for the average Cambodian prisoner or the average Cambodian political prisoner? It means things are pretty terrible. You know, thankfully, Theary is strong of will and strong of body, and she is surviving one day at a time.

But, obviously, you know there are international law requirements for how a person should be treated in prison. And we are going to highlight obviously the violations of these international rules and regulations that are being committed against heroin in this case in terms of overcrowding or lack of access to medical care, the violations of a right to practice their religion. And also the arbitrary decision to keep her six hours away from Phnom Penh to make it more difficult for her lawyer and family to visit her. You know these are all very clear violations of her rights as our for example, the fact that she can't send out letters. She can't make phone calls or communicate via the Internet. Again these are all things that are designed to put more pressure on her and to make her life as miserable and to try to break her and I will say having known Theary for more than 20 years, there's no way in which Hun Sen and his regime will be able to break her.


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