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Appeal Court refuses to release human rights activist Seng Theary

Police arrest Seng Theary in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court after judge sentenced her to six years in jail. Photo taken on June 14, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Police arrest Seng Theary in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court after judge sentenced her to six years in jail. Photo taken on June 14, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The Court of Appeal on Thursday declined to release prominent Cambodian-American human rights advocate Seng Theary, who in June was found guilty of plotting and incitement to overthrow the government and sentenced to six years in prison.

Her lawyers had appealed for her release while her appeal of the conviction was being processed.

Yun Narong, president judge, said that continued imprisonment followed the  legal procedure.

“The court decides not to allow the defendant Seng Theary to be freed,” he said, though he declined to explain further.

The defendant — who was moved from Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison to Preah Vihear prison — was not present at Thursday’s hearing, despite a request to appear.

Civil society groups criticized the trial as neither fair nor fair, given the defendant’s absence.

In June, Ms.Theary was convicted of plotting against the government. She was among 139 members and supporters of the CNRP who were prosecuted in two mass trials for their role in supporting the attempted return of the exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy in 2019.

 Im Sophan, prosecutor at the Court of Appeal, said during the trial that the defense had offered no reason for Ms. Theary’s release.

“There is no verified specific reason for releasing the defendant who has been sentenced to six years in prison, so the defendant should not be released,” he said.

Theary’s defense lawyer, Choung Choungy, expressed disappointment that the higher court continued to hold her in prison.

“It is unfair for her because the Court of Appeal does not have a complete verdict as to whether it is reasonable to continue to detain her anymore,” he said.

“To continue her detention, it does mean illegal imprisonment because there is no complete verdict as asserts,” Mr. Choungy said.

“When there is not a complete verdict, Ms. Seng Theary is a person who remains innocent,” he said.

He added that by not allowing the defendant to be present, the court had violated her rights to a fair trial.

Yi Soksan, a senior monitor at rights group Adhoc who attended the trial, said that the conviction was a political one as she had been arrested only for expressing her opinions.

“I think that today’s trial that the court has violated on procedure without presenting the defendant in the courtroom,” he added.

“The government as well as judges should free Seng Theary in order to restore the national reputation and avoid public criticism that the court is under government control,” Mr. Soksan said.

He said that transferring her from Phnom Penh to distant Preah Vihear creates more suffering and is a form of “psychological torture” that also impacts relatives who want to visit her. 

In June, the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prison quietly transferred Ms. Theary to Preah Vihear, citing security concerns.

General Department of Prison Nuth Savna, could not be reached for comment.

Chak Sokpheap, executive director at CCHR, said she was not surprised Ms. Theary lost her appeal today.

“Seng Theary is a political and human rights activist who has been convicted as part of the mass trials led by the Royal Government of Cambodia to stifle political opposition,” she said.

“The RGC must stop viewing activists and human rights defenders as political dissidents or threats to be neutralized and release all those arbitrarily arrested and wrongfully convicted for exercising their rights and freedoms, as is the case of Seng Theary.”

On August 30, Ms. Sopheap visited Ms. Theary at the Preah Vihear provincial prison, and said that she remains physically and mentally strong, despite her detention.

During the visit, Ms.Theary expressed her wish to be present for the hearing on Thursday and to be transferred from Preah Vihear to the Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh, according to Ms. Sopheap.

In addition, she also sent her regards to youth and environmental activists, as well as to the NagaWorld strikers and the Friday Women, and other human rights defenders.

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