Meach Sovannar’s case in the U.S. accusing Cambodian General Hun Manet of unlawful imprisonment, torture, terrorism and other crimes cleared its first legal hurdle on Thursday when a federal district judge in the case decided the court has jurisdiction, according to one of his attorneys.
Judge George H. Wu of the Central District Court of California ruled that the case against the son of long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen could go forward, Morton Sklar told RFA’s Khmer Service.
"The judge in essence granted everything that we wanted,” Sklar told RFA. “It was a tremendous success this morning, and what he granted us was the right to carry out what's called jurisdictional discovery under the supervision of the court.”
Sklar said the decision was a key to unlocking information necessary to the case.
“That means we're able to obtain disclosure of vital pieces of information that the government of Cambodia and Hun Manet previously have been keeping secret, and we will be able to do this very, very quickly,” he said.
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 damage borne by Sovannara’s family.
Hun Manet heads the Cambodian military’s anti-terror unit, is deputy chairman joint staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and is the deputy commander of the Prime Minister's Bodyguard Unit – an elite unit that has often been at the center of complaints about rights abuses.
Hun Manet is widely viewed as the successor to his father Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen who has ruled the country for more than 30 years.
The country of Cambodia is also named as a defendant, and Sklar said Wu’s ruling gives Hun Manet two choices.
"What that means is that the government of Cambodia and Hun Manet have a choice: Either they can agree and let the court-ordered jurisdictional discovery proceed, so that we can ask these questions and get the answers, or they could say: 'No, we’re not going to participate in this,' in which case under the court rules they have automatically lost the case and we have a verdict against both the government of Cambodia and Hun Manet."
In April, as Hun Manet toured parts of the U.S. that are home to large Cambodian diaspora communities, he was greeted by Cambodian-Americans protesting Phnom Penh's human rights violations and domestic property seizures.
On the last day of Hun Manet's visit, he was served with court documents by a private investigator named Paul Hayes, who was hospitalized after allegedly being thrown to the ground by Hun Manet’s bodyguards outside of a restaurant in Long Beach, California.
Hayes's subpoena was tied to a wrongful imprisonment suit brought in a U.S. federal court by Meach Sovannara, who is the Cambodian National Rescue Party’s information director. He has dual U.S. and Cambodian citizenship.
Meach Sovannara was given a 20-year sentence for taking part in a protest in Phnom Penh in late 2014. He and 10 other activists were jailed on insurrection charges for clashing with police over the closure of a protest site in the capital.
While Cambodia’s courts are viewed as a tool of the Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the Cambodian strong man isn’t likely to find U.S. courts are so friendly.
"What we've been able to do with this case is get a U.S. court, not subject to the dictates of Hun Sen and the Hun Sen government, exercising independent jurisdiction to deal with what's going on in Cambodia,” said Sklar.
“There has to be that outside monitoring, and outside way of checking on what's happening in Cambodian government. Without that there will be no improvement in the human rights and democracy situation in Cambodia,” he added.
Sklar told RFA that Wu seemed to be a “very determined and very clear-cut judge” who “wants results.”
"When the counsel for the defendant tried to object to the discovery, the judge said: 'This is my order. If you do not agree to let this take place, if you do not come to an agreement on the items to be included and the questions to be asked, I will order it done myself.'"
Hun Manet’s attorney, John Purcell, has previously said that the accusations made in Meach Sovannara’s complaint are “groundless.” Purcell told RFA that he was discussing the case with the other party to agree on a few points for the Sept. 6 hearing.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.