Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Seng Theary Begins Hunger Strike, After UN Declares Her Arbitrarily Detained

Police arrest Seng Theary in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court after a judge sentenced her to six years in prison. She was sent to a prison in Preah Vihear province. Photo taken on June 14, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Police arrest Seng Theary in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court after a judge sentenced her to six years in prison. She was sent to a prison in Preah Vihear province. Photo taken on June 14, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Imprisoned activist Seng Theary began a 10 day hunger strike on Monday, less than a week after a United Nations report declared she was being detained in violation of international law and called for her release, her lawyer Jared Genser stated on Monday.

“Theary’s hunger strike serves as a powerful and peaceful act of resistance to highlight both the severe oppression of the political opposition in Cambodia and that the forthcoming elections will be neither free nor fair,” Genser said.

“You want to do a hunger strike, you want to die, that’s up to you,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said, regarding Theary, in a speech on June 28. 

Theary, a dual US-Cambodian citizen, was sentenced to six years in prison in June last year for “conspiracy to commit treason” and “incitement to create gross chaos impacting public security,” according to Genser. 

Last week, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that “no trial of Ms. Seng should have taken place” and that she was “targeted because of her activities as a human rights defender who disseminated posts and information that were critical of the Government.”

“I won’t pardon you [Theary] because I don’t trust foreigners who want to destroy me,” Hun Sen said in his June 28 speech, warning that foreign interference would not lessen Theary’s prison sentence.

The grounds for Theary’s conviction rested on two Facebook posts critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Genser stated. 

The UN stated Theary’s Facebook posts “do not demonstrate any evidence of inciting or engaging in violent behavior” and that her “detention is arbitrary.”

The UN also stated that articles 494 and 495 of the criminal code — which prohibit activities inciting social disorder and violence — were “incompatible” with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because they contained “vague” and “overly broad language.”

The Cambodian government did not engage with the UN’s working group after being given more than eight months to respond to allegations about Theary’s trial and imprisonment conditions, the UN report stated.

Theary was among mass trials also targeting more than 100 members of the court-dissolved CNRP opposition group, many of whom were also charged and convicted with incitement and treason.

Theary is being held at Preah Vihear prison, far from her family and shares a five meter square cell with 19 other female prisoners, the report noted.

”My family is of course gravely concerned for Theary’s health and distraught that she has resorted to such desperate measures,” her brother Mardi Seng stated, regarding her hunger strike. “At the same time, we also understand her frustration and her desire to speak out against these injustices.”

General Department of Prisons spokesperson Nouth Savna denied Theary was doing a hunger strike and claimed she was instead “fasting for health.”

“For some public opinion concerned about her health in prison, there is nothing negative,” Savna said.

He added that the prison is paying “close attention to this case” and “has an ambulance available in case of emergency.”

Theary’s brother and lawyer called for the US to take action based on the Levinson Act, which authorizes the president to “impose visa- and property-blocking sanctions against any foreign person responsible for or complicit in the unlawful or wrongful detention of a U.S. national abroad.”

Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy has called for Cambodian authorities to release Theary from “unjust punishment.” US Embassy spokesperson Stephanie Arzate told CamboJA that “we take seriously our commitment to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are providing Seng Theary and her family all appropriate consular assistance.”

Arzate said that US consular officers “regularly visit” Theary and that the ambassador and senior officials “continue to raise concerns with Cambodian officials” about her case.

On July 14, US congress representatives reintroduced a proposed law, specifically referencing Theary and other imprisoned opposition members and activists, they said would “hold the Cambodian government accountable for abuses and corruption that undermine democracy and human rights.” The act, which re-iterated that “asset-blocking sanctions” could be imposed on Cambodian citizens, was first introduced in 2020. 

“The United States must send a clear message that we will not waver in our commitment to supporting…the people of Cambodia and their constitutional right to democracy,” senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts stated. 

CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan did not comment on Theary’s case but said it was uncertain whether the sanctions would be enacted or have any significant impact on Cambodia.

“Whether or not to impose sanctions is their right [the US Senate],” he said. “But it remains to be seen whether sanctions will be effective or not.” 

Representatives from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights Cambodia office did not respond to requests for comment sent Monday afternoon.

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan could not be reached by phone and did not respond to requests for comment over Telegram.

(Additional reporting by Hel Komsan)

Note: This article has been updated at 8:11pm ICT on July 17 to include comment from the US embassy.