Our Voices

This American is a political prisoner in Cambodia. How is that okay?

Kerry Kennedy is a human rights lawyer and president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Jared Genser is also a human rights lawyer. Both serve as pro bono counsel to imprisoned Cambodian American Theary Seng.

This weekend, President Biden will visit Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, where he will emphasize the importance to the United States of the 10 countries and 600 million people of Southeast Asia. Yet just outside the luxury hotel hosting the summit, the Cambodian people are facing the most severe repression they have experienced in decades. It is critical for Biden to press Prime Minister Hun Sen both publicly and privately on this issue. He must also demand the immediate and unconditional release of the country’s more than 50 political prisoners, including Cambodian American human rights lawyer Theary Seng.

Hun Sen is one of the most long-standing authoritarian rulers in the world, having been in power since 1985. According to Human Rights Watch, he has lasted this long through “politically motivated violence, control of the security forces, manipulated elections, massive corruption, and the tacit support of foreign powers.” In 2017, he banned the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which enabled his Cambodia People’s Party to win all 125 National Assembly seats in the 2018 national election.

But Hun Sen has dramatically ramped up his repression of real and imagined opponents as he has accelerated plans to transfer power to his son Hun Manet. In March 2022, 20 opposition party members were convicted in a mass trial and sentenced to five to 10 years in prison. (Those convicted included leaders Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua, who were already in exile.) And in June, 51 other civil society and opposition party leaders were convicted on fabricated conspiracy and incitement charges, including Theary Seng, who was given six years in prison. Beyond imprisoning or forcing its opponents into exile, the regime also uses lawsuits, massive tax bills and violence to shut down or otherwise threaten, intimidate, and harass independent media and civil society organizations.

Theary Seng’s case is a high-profile symbol of the regime’s impunity. Both her parents were murdered in the Khmer Rouge genocide and she came to the United States as a child. After graduating from Georgetown University and the University of Michigan Law School, she returned to Cambodia to advocate for human rights, including running Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Speak Truth to Power education program, which aims to train the next generation of human rights advocates. She also became an outspoken critic of Hun Sen.

Today, she is being held in terrible conditions in Cambodia’s notorious Preah Vihear Prison, in a 16-by-16-foot cell with 19 other women, where she launched a hunger strike on Nov. 7. She has been blocked from attending church services and making phone calls. One of us was even banned “forever” from returning to Cambodia after speaking out in Phnom Penh after one of the hearings in her case. Despite Secretary of State Antony Blinken having personally urged Hun Sen to release Theary Seng because her conviction was politically motivated, the State Department has inexplicably contradicted him and refused to classify her as wrongfully detained. We have submitted Theary Seng’s case to the United Nations, asking for it to declare her arbitrarily detained in violation of international law.

As a result of Hun Sen’s policies, the U.S.-Cambodia relationship has deteriorated rapidly. In September 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted the Cambodia Democracy Act, which would require sanctioning individual and entities that have substantially undermined democracy in Cambodia or committed or directed serious human rights abuses. Since then, the Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on two senior Cambodian military officials for corruption. And the State Department announced an arms embargo on Cambodia, citing its corruption, the human rights abuses of its government and military, and deepening Chinese military influence. But by his actions, Hun Sen has shown he believes he can act with total impunity. For that reason, so much more needs to be done beyond Biden engaging him at the summit.

First, the Biden administration should immediately impose sanctions on key government officials responsible for gross human rights abuses — beginning with Sar Kheng, minister of interior and deputy prime minister, who oversees police and prisons, and Chea Leang, Cambodia’s prosecutor general. Second, the United States should review the provision of foreign assistance to Cambodia, which totaled $326 million from 2019 to 2021, to ensure that it substantially focuses on advancing democracy and human rights. And third, a version of the Cambodia Democracy Act, which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed, should be passed by the full Senate so that it can then be signed by Biden into law.

While the United States has repeatedly spoken out against Cambodia’s descent into autocracy, neither diplomatic engagement nor public condemnations have had any discernible effect on the behavior of Hun Sen or his regime. As a result, further specific actions that dramatically increase the consequences for these abuses are necessary to convey the strength of our country’s resolve. Hun Sen must understand that the United States stands in solidarity with the Cambodian people in their desire for freedom, democracy and human rights.

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