Theary Seng is a dual citizen of the United States and Cambodia, a qualified lawyer imprisoned and on hunger strike in a Cambodian jail because of her commitment to human rights. US President Joe Biden cannot ignore her plight on his current visit to the country for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.
A mass trial in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh in June this year saw Theary Seng, a peaceful human rights campaigner, convicted of treason. She was jailed along with dozens of other human rights campaigners and supporters of Cambodia’s banned political opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The evidence offered against her at trial was based on her Facebook posts criticizing the government and expressing support for the opposition.
She was charged under Article 495 of the Cambodian criminal code for “incitement to social disorder.” The article has been found by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is party, for being too broad and vague, and for not distinguishing between violent speech and peaceful exercise of fundamental rights.
Her trial was given the grade of ‘F’ by the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch Initiative. The foundation found the trial showed “egregious and blatant violations of the rule of law and administration of justice in the repeated denial of and disregard for Ms. Seng’s due process rights.” The charges lacked specificity and there was a refusal to allow access to court documents which would have strengthened her defense, the foundation found. The trial was “perfunctory”, with “manifest procedural and other irregularities”, and the prosecution “failing to discharge any reasonable or satisfactory standard and burden of proof. The outcome was all but pre-determined and predictable.”
She was handed a six-year prison term and is being held at a remote prison in Preah Vihear, which isolates her from her family and counsel. Rights which are given to other prisoners, such as to attend church services and to make regular phone calls, have been denied her. On Nov. 7 she went on a one-week hunger strike demanding to be moved back to Prey Sar prison in the capital Phnom Penh.
Theary Seng is well respected in Cambodia and internationally as the founder of the Center for Cambodian Civic Education, which had a partnership with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice, and the Association for Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia. Her parents were both killed by the Khmer Rouge, which came to power in 1975 and which ruled until being overthrown in 1979.
She emigrated to the United States via Thailand in 1980 and attended the Valley Christian High School in Cerritos, California, as well as Georgetown and Michigan universities. She became a member of the New York Bar Association and American Bar Association.
Theary Seng moved back to Cambodia in 2004 and published her memoir of life under the Khmer Rouge, called Daughter of the Killing Fields: Asrei’s Story. Under the Khmer Rouge, she wrote in her book, she and her family were “invisible to human eyes as half of the world slept and the other half busied themselves handling modernity — all oblivious of the evil convulsing Cambodia.” The lack of action by the outside world to press for her release means that she has in effect become invisible again.
Free and Fair Elections
The trial was not an isolated instance but a part of a long-term pattern of Cambodia’s courts being used to quash political dissent. The country’s justice system is widely recognised to be under the control of the executive. The World Justice Project ranked Cambodia 138th out of 139 countries in its 2021 Rule of Law Index, with only Venezuela scoring worse.
Theary Seng supports the free and fair elections in Cambodia which were promised in the Paris Peace Agreements signed by the US and all the other major international powers in 1991. The current regime has largely dispensed with even the pretence that elections are free and fair. The opposition CNRP was dissolved by the country’s supreme court in 2017. At the last national elections in 2018, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) faced no meaningful challenge and won every single seat in the national assembly.
The country’s next national elections are due in July 2023. While the CNRP remains banned, another opposition party, called the Candlelight Party, was allowed to contest local communal elections earlier this year. Its candidates and supporters have been subject to intimidation and violence, and Hun Sen has said the party may find itself banned from contesting the 2023 national elections.
Theary Seng needs Joe Biden’s help to rescue her from injustice. Cambodia needs the help of the US and the rest of the free world to achieve the same sorts of democratic freedoms that many of us take for granted.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
David Whitehouse PhD, a journalist in Paris, was co-author of the autobiography of Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy published in 2013.