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Cambodian ruling party spokesman rejects criticism of Theary Seng conviction

Renewed calls from the U.S. State Department and a U.N. working group for the release of Cambodian-American lawyer Theary Seng are a violation of Cambodia’s sovereignty, the spokesman for the country’s ruling party said on Thursday.

“Our court jurisdiction is under the laws of Cambodia as an independent and sovereign state,” said Sok Ey San, spokesman for the Cambodian People’s Party.

“The court convicts [any person] based on the laws and the facts. She caused chaos in Cambodia for being a holder of foreign nation’s passport. She stirred chaos in Cambodian society.” 

In June 2022, Theary Seng was sentenced to six years in prison on treason charges, prompting condemnation from rights groups and the U.S. government. 

Her conviction was “a direct result of her exercise of her right to freedom of expression, which is protected under international law,” a U.N. working group of independent human rights experts said in a report released on Wednesday.

“Her detention resulted from her long-term, high-profile criticism of the prime minister and her pro-democracy activism,” the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said in the 17-page opinion

State Department comments

Asked about the working group’s report, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the United States continues to condemn the conviction and sentence of Theary Seng, who holds dual Cambodian and U.S. citizenship. 

When pressed by a reporter, Miller said the department still hasn’t determined whether she is “wrongfully detained” – a designation that could involve the department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

“With respect to this case, there is no higher … pressure we can bring to bear than the secretary of state himself personally raising a case with his counterparts,” Miller said at Wednesday’s daily briefing.

In August 2022, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed Prime Minister Hun Sen to free Theary Seng and other activists during a visit to Phnom Penh.

Other U.S. officials, including Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya, USAID Administrator Samatha Power and Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy, have also called for her immediate and unconditional release. 

Theary Seng was sentenced 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.

The specific charges stemmed from abortive efforts in 2019 to bring about the return to Cambodia of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile in France since 2015. Theary Seng and the other defendants denied the charges.

Foreign intervention fears

Last month, Hun Sen said he wouldn’t pardon Theary Seng or opposition party leader Kem Sokha, who was sentenced in March on treason charges widely condemned as politically motivated.

Hun Sen said the decision was necessary in light of recent foreign intervention in Cambodia. He added that even though Theary Seng has dual citizenship, her case applies only to Cambodian law.

In recent months, the prime minister has frequently invoked the specter of national security threats at public appearances ahead of the July 23 parliamentary elections, which he has framed as a referendum on who can best maintain Cambodia’s sovereignty. 

“From now on, those who seek foreign intervention will stay in prison,” he said last month. “We don’t release you. Don’t include them in prisoners who will be pardoned or have a reduced prison term. We are stopping foreign intervention in Cambodia.”

Theary Seng’s case was submitted to the U.N. working group by the Perseus Strategies, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and Freedom House organizations, which represent her pro bono.

“Theary Seng’s case is emblematic of the many people jailed in Cambodia for exposing human rights abuses, advocating for free expression, and calling for free and fair elections,” said Margaux Ewen, director of Freedom House’s political prisoner’s initiative. 

“The Working Group’s judgment comes at a critical time. As democracy and internet freedom are under threat globally and in Cambodia, we need the international community’s support of brave individuals like Theary Seng – and the rights for which they fight.”

Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.