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Khmer Bible editor marks one year in a Cambodian prison

Theary Seng’s plight expected to be raised at UNHRC session
Cambodian-American human rights advocate Theary Seng, dressed as Lady Liberty, shouts slogans in front of Phnom Penh municipal court on June 14, 2022

Cambodian-American human rights advocate Theary Seng, dressed as Lady Liberty, shouts slogans in front of Phnom Penh municipal court on June 14, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Published: June 15, 2023 05:04 AM GMT
Updated: June 15, 2023 01:01 PM GMT

Khmer Bible editor, Theary Seng, marked her first year behind bars in a Cambodian prison amid messages of support with her plight expected to be raised at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva when it meets later this month.

Family and friends said she was coping well with incarceration at a prison near Preah Vihear in the remote north of Cambodia. 

Theary Seng was jailed for six years on June 14 last year after she was convicted of treason and supporting a plot to oust Prime Minister Hun Sen.

She lost her final appeal in October and Hun Sen recently ruled out any prospect for a pardon for the dual Cambodian-US citizen, saying any individual who receives help from foreigners “will never be tolerated or pardoned, for instance, Seng Theary.”

Liberal International, a world federation of liberal and progressive democratic political parties, noted that Theary Seng had moved back to Cambodia from the US in 2014 to fight for human rights and instead of fleeing after a violent government crackdown was launched in 2017, she stayed.

“Her imprisonment only shows that Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule is threatened by any political dissent. By not allowing any freedom of expression, Hun Sen continues to raise fear in the people of Cambodia that speaking up against injustice will cost one’s freedom,” it said.

"The victims of Hun Sen’s regime should have justice"

It also said Theary Seng was a strong candidate for the Liberal International Prize for Freedom 2023 and strongly condemned her imprisonment and that of “Cambodian activists opposing the draconian rule of Hun Sen.”

“Freedom of expression is a human right, and the victims of Hun Sen’s regime should have justice,” it said, adding Liberal International will deliver an oral statement at the UNHRC session in Geneva “on oppression in Cambodia and the unjust imprisonment of Theary Seng.”

The UNHRC will hold its 53rd regular session from June 19 to July 14 at the Palais des Nations.

Theary Seng’s conviction for treason followed an attempt by Cambodian opposition leader in exile Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia in late 2019 and stage a popular rebellion.

His bid was thwarted by airlines who refused to let him board. Hun Sen then escalated the crackdown and 129 supporters of the outlawed Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) were charged and convicted, sparking sharp criticism by human rights groups and the US.

The US has also called for her release. “Cambodia’s government decision marks a sharp reversal of the ideals in Cambodia’s constitution,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters.

"It's fair to say that Hun Sen has made an enormous mistake"

Theary Seng, who has always maintained her innocence, earned international attention during her trial when she marched across Phnom Penh dressed as a chained Statue of Liberty, wearing green face paint, robes and a cardboard cut-out for a crown.

“I am Lady Liberty. I am freedom. I am your breath. You cannot live well without me. I am the colors that enrich your life. I am the music that feeds your soul. I am the oxygen you breathe. This autocratic regime wants to stop you from breathing,” she said before her guilty verdict.

“This autocratic regime wants to imprison freedom.”

Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer representing Theary Seng, was blunt, saying: “I think that it's fair to say that Hun Sen has made an enormous mistake … we're gonna do everything possible to make sure he pays for it.”

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