Our Voices

United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Demands Immediate and Unconditional Release of U.S./Cambodia Dual National And Human Rights Activist Theary Seng

WASHINGTON, D.C. and GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Today, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (“Working Group”) published its judgment on its website that U.S./Cambodia dual national and human rights activist Theary Seng has been arbitrarily detained in violation of international law and demanded her immediate and unconditional release. Theary’s case was submitted to the Working Group by Perseus Strategies, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, and Freedom House, all of which represent her pro bono. Theary was imprisoned and sentenced to six years in prison on June 14, 2022, after being convicted of “conspiracy to commit treason” and “incitement to create gross chaos impacting public security” alongside dozens of activists and political opposition leaders. Her actual crime – making two posts on Facebook critical of Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman dictator. She has been imprisoned ever since in a remote region of Cambodia. This judgment comes just before Cambodia’s national election being held on July 23rd, which has already been widely condemned by the international community for excluding the main opposition Candlelight Party.

Theary is a lifelong human rights activist. Her parents were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, and she was imprisoned in Cambodia as a young child. As a Cambodian Genocide survivor and refugee, she escaped and was brought to the U.S., where she grew up in Michigan and later obtained her B.A. at Georgetown University and her J.D. at the University of Michigan Law School. She returned to Cambodia in 2004 to found two NGOs aimed at human rights and civic engagement.

Her sham mass trial received an “F” grade from the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights and the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch Initiative. President Biden and Secretary Blinken each directly raised Theary’s case with Hun Sen, urging her release. And many other prominent U.S. officials, such as Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy, and former State Department Spokesman Ned Price have all urged Theary’s release from unjust imprisonment. Full details of Theary’s arrest, trial, and detention are available here.

The Working Group found Theary’s detention arbitrary for several reasons, highlighting both the regime’s “political motivation” and that mass trials like Theary’s “are incompatible with the interests of justice.” The Working Group also noted that Theary’s detention “is situated within a wider crackdown on freedom of expression,” and that the due process violations she faced were “designed to intimidate her into silence.”

“After receiving her education in the United States, Theary returned to Cambodia, where for decades she has courageously been an outspoken advocate for human rights and democracy, despite the great risk she faced for doing so,” Jared Genser, Theary’s international counsel, explained. “She is a Cambodian and American hero whose detention is a travesty of justice, and she deserves the world’s support,” he added.

Kerry Kennedy, international counsel, and President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights asserted: “Imbued with a moral compass that never waivers, Theary Seng is a hero of human rights, democratic reforms, and justice. Over a decade ago, Theary led the RFK Human Rights education program in schools across Cambodia, training the next generation of defenders. Her voice, fearless and mighty, was then and is today vital to freedom. In concert with the recommendations of the Working Group, Theary Seng must be immediately released.”

“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.”

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For more information, please contact:

Angelita Baeyens