UN group of experts calls for release of Cambodian-American human rights activist after investigation

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A United Nations panel is calling for the immediate release of a Cambodian-American human rights activist, saying an investigation it conducted concluded she was “arbitrarily detained in violation of international law”.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said in a judgment late Wednesday that while lawyer Theary Seng had been convicted of conspiracy to commit treason and other charges last year, she was in reality punished for “posting two Facebook posts criticizing Hun Sen”. “, the autocratic Prime Minister of Cambodia.

The ruling comes just over a week before general elections in Cambodia, in which Hun Sen, in power for 38 years, and his ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party, are virtually assured of a landslide victory. since the Candlelight Party, the only other candidate capable of mounting a credible challenge, was banned on a technicality from contesting the polls by the National Elections Committee.

The situation is similar to that of the 2018 general election, when Cambodia’s popular National Rescue Party was dissolved months before the election by a controversial court ruling alleging it plotted to illegally overthrow the government.

Cambodian courts are widely believed to be under Hun Sen’s influence, and pro-democracy groups have regularly criticized his government for stifling opposition.

Theary Seng was sentenced to six years in prison last June during a trial with dozens of Cambodian National Rescue Party members over an unsuccessful attempt by the party leader to return from exile in 2019.

Cambodian authorities blocked Sam Rainsy’s return and alleged that the 60 defendants were involved in arranging his trip, which Theary Seng and the others denied.

Theary Seng fled Cambodia as a child after both her parents were killed in the radical-communist Khmer Rouge genocide and grew up in Michigan. She returned to Cambodia in 2004 to found two NGOs focused on human rights and civic engagement.

Her case has been submitted for judgment to the UN working group by the organizations Perseus Strategies, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and Freedom House, all of which represent her on a pro bono basis.

He concluded that Theary Seng’s detention was arbitrary for several reasons, pointing to both the regime’s “political motivation” and the fact that mass trials like Theary Seng’s “are incompatible with the interests of justice”.

He noted that Theary Seng’s detention “is part of a broader crackdown on free speech” and that the due process violations she faced were “designed to intimidate her into ‘to silence’.

On June 5, while addressing workers at a Cambodian garment factory, Hun Sen ruled out pardoning Theary Seng and publicly ordered his justice minister not to accept any request for amnesty or reduced sentence for her.

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