Could Cambodia’s New Prime Minister Release Theary Seng?

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Could Cambodia’s New Prime Minister Release Theary Seng?

With a new administration in office, the family of the imprisoned Khmer-American lawyer hope for her freedom.

Could Cambodia’s New Prime Minister Release Theary Seng?

Cambodian-American lawyer Theary Seng, center, dressed as Lady Liberty, talks to the media outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, June 14, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Heng Sinith

Theary Seng, a Khmer-American lawyer currently serving a six-year prison term for treason, has been transferred from a remote prison in northern Cambodia to Prey Sar prison in the capital Phnom Penh, with her family hopeful for an early release after the United States reinstated a financial aid package

Theary is one of more than 60 political prisoners being held in Cambodia and her release can only improve ties with the West, which were battered by former Prime Minister Hun Sen and his years-long crackdown on opposition politicians and their supporters.

That crackdown resulted in his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) winning two elections, which were discredited by human rights groups, and Hun Sen vowed he would never grant Theary Seng – among others – an amnesty or early release.

But power was transferred to his eldest son in August and Hun Sen has been unequivocal in saying Hun Manet is now prime minister, and that is not beholden to his father’s policies.

As a result, one can only assume the release of any political prisoner is now up to Hun Manet.

A member of Theary Seng’s family told The Diplomat she had been in good spirits following her return to Prey Sar and she was receiving consular assistance from the U.S. embassy. The family was also advised by the embassy that she “appeared to be in good health and spirits.”

“Theary’s family and friends always pray for her wellbeing and hope for her release and freedom,” the family member, who declined to be named, added following her September 23 transfer. U.S. officials were allowed to visit her three days later.

Theary Seng was moved to Prey Sar immediately after her June 2022 conviction, and sources said guards were worried after determining she was adept at organizing fellow prisoners who were also sympathetic to her cause.

Her ability to stage theatrical, headline-grabbing protests during her long-running trial, when she dressed as Lady Liberty and once marched across town in shackles to a hearing, was also a concern resulting in her transfer to a provincial jail in Preah Vihear.

Since her incarceration, she has staged hunger strikes and emerged as a priority for U.S. diplomats, including President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Phnom Penh last year when Cambodia held the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Theary’s return to Prey Sar, diplomatic pressure, and intense lobbying by international human rights lawyer Jared Genser have raised hopes that talks will eventually secure her release. Genser has been banned from entering Cambodia after violating his tourist visa.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has concluded she was “arbitrarily detained in violation of international law” and officials who contributed to her incarceration are at risk of being blacklisted after the U.S. Senate approved amendments to an appropriations package.

But importantly, Washington has released $18 million in aid, seen by some as extending an olive branch, which was withheld by the State Department a day after the July 23 election, described as “neither free nor fair.” Editorials in major American newspapers have also expressed their support for Theary.

But for Theary Seng, her ordeal and conviction for plotting to overthrow Hun Sen’s former government seemed remarkably disproportionate and out of context, when she summed up what actually happened.

She admits to having once delivered a “nine-figure salute,” a gesture of support for Sam Rainy, the opposition leader in exile who vowed to return to Cambodia on November 9, 2019, and challenge Hun Sen for the leadership. It was a bid that failed miserably.

But by the time of her arrest, Theary Seng told this journalist that she had toned down her politics for more than five years and was occupied with life in the countryside where she was involved with publishing and editing grammar in the Khmer-language version of the Bible.

That’s hardly a crime befitting of a six-year prison term.