The criminal prosecution of Theary Seng in Cambodia violates her fair trial rights and her right to freedom of expression.
The American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights has been monitoring Ms. Seng’s trial as part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative. Ms. Seng is a Cambodian-American lawyer who emigrated to the United States from Cambodia as a child after her parents died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. She subsequently returned to Cambodia to work on social and political issues, including by serving as the founding director of CIVICUS: Center for Cambodian Civic Education. Ms. Seng is an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
In November 2020, Ms. Seng learned through a court summons that charges had been filed against her for conspiracy to commit treason and incitement of social disorder. She is being tried alongside 46 co-accused, including opposition leader in exile Sam Rainsy, and is facing a 12-year prison sentence.
Thus far, due to the authorities’ failure to provide information regarding the allegations of conspiracy and incitement, Ms. Seng has been unable to prepare a defense. The charging document contains no mention of Ms. Seng at all except for listing her name as one of 47 accused. No factual details are provided. Ms. Seng’s attempts to obtain additional information about the allegations have been rebuffed by both the prosecution and the court. As such, the authorities have violated her rights to be notified of the charges against her and to have adequate facilities to prepare a defense.
The lack of information as to Ms. Seng’s alleged criminal wrongdoing suggests that the prosecution is but a pretext to curtail her freedom of expression and, further, that it is meant to serve as a broader warning to dissenting voices. Indeed, Ms. Seng’s trial is one of several ongoing mass trials against individuals who are affiliated with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) or who have otherwise been critical of Hun Sen.
Meanwhile, the first hearing in Ms. Seng’s case entailed questioning of two co-accused about, respectively, whether one co-accused had read stories on Sam Rainsy’s Facebook page and had posted a Facebook status expressing support for Sam Rainsy and whether the other co-accused had “liked” Sam Rainsy’s Facebook page and had listened to a radio speech given by an opposition leader: additional indication that the purpose of the trial is intimidation and suppression of critical views.
Cambodia must respect the right to a fair trial and stop targeting individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression.