Hun Manet’s latest trip to America was supposed to look like a celebration, but it didn’t work out that way.
The scion of Cambodia’s first family and a lieutenant general in the army, Hun Manet was set to tour of areas in the U.S. with big Cambodian populations; receive an award with a depiction of U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.; and attend in a Khmer New Year’s parade in California.
Instead of being the life of the party, however, Hun Manet is now a party to a novel lawsuit accusing the Cambodian government and its officials of falsely imprisoning Meach Sovannara, the media director of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Meach Sovannara was jailed last year for insurrection due to his presence at a 2014 protest that turned violent, and Hun Manet is named in the lawsuit because he oversees the military and security police.
The son of Cambodian Prime Minister and chieftain of the Cambodian People’s Party Hun Sen, Hun Manet may also face another lawsuit suit as his bodyguards are accused of attacking the process server in the Meach Sovannara lawsuit.
Sovereign immunity exceptions
While foreign government sovereignty usually protects foreign officials from facing trial in the U.S. just as U.S. leaders are protected from lawsuits abroad, the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act contains an exception for violent action against US citizens abroad, said Morton Sklar, a longtime lawyer for Cambodia’s opposition, who filed the suit.
“As a general rule, you can’t file a case in U.S. courts against the foreign government, but there are exceptions to that rule that the U.S. Congress has adopted, and we are applying two of those exceptions in our case to allow us to directly file against the government of Cambodia itself,” Sklar told RFA's Khmer Service.
Sovannara’s case is reportedly the first case to invoke the exceptions to hold officials of a foreign government accountable for human rights violations that affect US citizens.
“This is why the case is unique and very ground-breaking. We have found the way to actually make the government of Cambodia itself directly a defendant in the case,” he told RFA.
The suit claims that Hun Manet was responsible for the violence that took place at Freedom Park in July 2014, for the arrest of Meach Sovannara in November that year and for his continued imprisonment in Phnom Penh.
State Department critique
The U.S. State Department, in its annual report on global human rights conditions released on Wednesday, pointed out problems with Hun Sen’s treatment of opposition politicians.
“The most significant human rights problems included a politicized and ineffective judiciary; growing restrictions on freedoms of speech, assembly, and association; and the use of violence and threatened imprisonment to intimidate the opposition,” said the report in its section on Cambodia.
“Government officials and members of their families who committed crimes often enjoyed impunity.”
While the lawsuit was a blow, it is not the only expression of disdain Cambodians in the U.S. had for Hun Manet.
A post on the Cambodia-America Alliance (CAA) Facebook page said Hun Manet’s decision not to attend the parade next month “is a victory for all Cambodians, at home or abroad”.
“His public appearance would not be tolerated by any freedom loving Khmer,” it added. “Simply put, the people have spoken; Hun Manet, the ambassador of tyranny and oppression is not welcome in America.”
It also urges people to use a “Never Manet” hash tag on social media.
Hun Manet was also confronted by protestors at nearly every venue where he was supposed to show up.
Body guard altercation
It was at a dinner reportedly at the La Lune restaurant in Long Beach on Saturday night where things turned violent.
Online videos appear to show Long Beach police spraying tear gas at Hun Manet’s bodyguards and protesters after a process server named Paul Hayes was allegedly assaulted by the bodyguards while serving him with the subpoena in the Meach Sovannara lawsuit.
“He reached his arm out to give him the court documents including the summons to appear in a manila envelope and a bodyguard grabbed him from behind, threw him off his feet and lifted him up, and very seriously injured him by throwing him to the ground,” Sklar said.
Phnom Penh responds
Press and Quick Reaction spokesman for the Council of Ministers Tith Sothea dismissed the lawsuit saying it was an attempt by a foreign lawyer to meddle in the country’s affairs.
“Lawyers based overseas should study the aspects of the law more clearly because this [Meach Sovanara’s case] is a criminal charge,” he said. “It is not Prime Minister Hun Sen who orders the warrants or issues any court decision, so I think this lawsuit was done without proper procedures and is getting lost in the understanding of the independent court procedures in Cambodia.”
While Hun Manet may be facing new legal entanglements, he is not without supporters.
“At the end of the day, Spirit of Unity wins,” he said in a message posted on his Facebook page with a smiley face emoticon. “Despite the threat from about 100 plus protesters, we had over 400 people turn up to join our New Year dinner together in Long Beach, California, in order to celebrate our unity together.”
He added: “I would like to thank and also apologize to those friends who came to the event, but could not attend because the venue could not hold any more people.”
Reported by Loeurm Im for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.