BANGKOK — Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer and human rights activist, was sentenced Tuesday to six years in prison as part of Cambodia’s wide-ranging crackdown on opponents of the nation’s Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Ms Theary Seng – a fugitive who escaped the battlefields of Cambodia and returned from the United States to help build democracy – was convicted along with dozens of other critics and opposition politicians on conspiracy to commit treason.
Choung Chou Ngy, her lawyer, said he plans to appeal her conviction. He said the sentences of those who received five years’ imprisonment were suspended, but the other defendants face five to eight years in prison.
They all fell victim to a concerted campaign by Mr. Hun Sen to eliminate the last vestiges of resistance to his one-man rule. The main opposition party, to which many of the accused belonged, was dissolved by court order in 2017, prompting many of its members to flee abroad.
Since then, the party’s top leaders, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, have been plagued with court cases, with some being convicted more than once in absentia on different charges.
In March, 19 members of the party, including half a dozen exile leaders, were convicted of “incitement” and “conspiracy,” and many were sentenced in absentia.
At the time, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the trials a “witch hunt,” saying, “Cambodia’s politicized courts have facilitated Prime Minister Hun Sen’s efforts to destroy the last remnants of democratic, civil, and political liberties rights in the country”.
Mr Hun Sen’s party, the Cambodian People’s Party, now holds all the seats in the National Assembly. The 69-year-old prime minister recently announced that he would eventually hand over leadership of the country to his son Hun Manet, a lieutenant general.
Mr Hun Sen was prime minister in a Vietnamese-installed communist government after the Vietnamese expelled the Khmer Rouge, who caused the deaths of around two million people in the late 1970s.
After their fall, the Khmer Rouge waged a jungle insurgency until the United Nations intervened to replace it with a Western-style democracy with political freedoms and human rights guarantees.
Mr Hun Sen remained in power, sharing it for a time with a co-prime minister, Norodom Ranariddh, after a UN-backed election.
In this context, Ms Theary Seng – who had survived the Khmer Rouge battlefields, fled to America and obtained a law degree – returned to Cambodia in 2004 as part of a struggling human rights movement.
In an interview last year, she said she had returned to help “stop Cambodia’s complete slide into autocracy.” Looking back, she said, “There were such high hopes when I entered civil society.”
But Mr. Hun Sen was already moving step by step to gather power and eliminate the opposition through imprisonment, exile, payoffs, vote-rigging, assassination and coups.
As human rights defenders fled or were arrested, Ms Theary Seng remained one of the government’s most staunch opponents.
Ms Theary Seng retained her United States citizenship but said she was determined not to flee although she could have. The State Department has criticized the charges against her and the other defendants as “baseless,” and the United States Embassy said it is monitoring the trial.
Since she was indicted along with dozens of others in November 2020 and barred from government-controlled news media and other avenues of expression, she has resorted to flamboyant displays to garner attention.
On the day of her sentencing, she wore the latest in a series of extravagant costumes, this time as Lady Liberty, with her face painted green and sporting a spiked crown and a green dress, which she was still wearing when cops packed her into a van.
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