Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, General Hun Manet, has little time left to respond to a lawsuit filed last month by jailed opposition member Meach Sovannara and his family in a US federal court, according to a lawyer for the case.
The lawsuit, filed on April 8 at a court in the Central District of California, includes several allegations of torture, false imprisonment, assault, and international terrorism against the Cambodian government.
“What we want at this point is for them to compensate us for what they have done to abuse my family, mentally and physically,” said Jamie Meach, Sovannara’s wife. “It has affected my husband, who is now in jail, and myself and my kids, who are now shocked and cannot focus on their study for missing their father.
“What we want is justice for my husband who has been charged with rioting. We want justice for him.”
Human rights lawyer Morton Sklar said Manet has until May 9 to respond before the case is automatically entered into the system and requires a ruling.
On April 9, during a visit to the US, an investigator attempted to deliver a court document to Manet while he was attending a banquet at a restaurant and was allegedly assaulted by Manet’s bodyguards.
Sklar argued that it is appropriate to pursue legal action through the US justice system, as Sovannara and his family are US citizens. He added that there are some specific exceptions in US law for suits that target foreign governments.
“The exceptions that are included in the congressional statute are the ones we’re relying upon in this case,” he said. “That’s why we filed the case that US congress said we could, and those include torture and the abuses … against Meach Sovannara for his long term imprisonment.”
A court official confirmed the complaint was filed in the Central District of California, but said no action has been taken yet.
“Nothing has really occurred yet other than the filing of the initial documents and a few administrative notices,” said Chris Powers, a court press official.
Manet said he has not taken a position on the case.
“I have no knowledge of Meach Sovannara’s case,” he said after returning from his tour to the US and Canada last month. “I’ve only heard of it through media and yet I have been accused on many counts, including international terrorism. I have no idea about that.”
Manet said that the implication that he was involved in “international terrorism” was proof that the lawsuits were politically motivated.
“I think that so far the complaint is baseless,” he said. “It’s merely a setup for political gain. There is no real basis.”
Not true, said Sklar. “I’ve had no contact, zero contact with any political figure. The reason why I became involved in the case was because I’m a human rights lawyer. I’m dedicated to preserving human rights and there’s been a systematic process of the government of Cambodia to violate human rights standards.”
Sklar said Sovannara was not the only victim who has suffered abuses. There are others such as opposition lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Sophea, who were brutally beaten by pro-government protesters; opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour and lawmaker Um Sam An, who are both in jail on charges of falsifying documents related to the demarcation of Cambodia’s border with Vietnam; and many unionized garment workers and victims of land-grabbing.
Sovannara was sentenced on July 21 last year to 20 years in jail for participating in a protest to demand the opening of Democracy Square, a site in the capital that became synonymous with post-2013 election demonstrations.
“My youngest sister is in the toughest situation,” said Sochiata Meach, Sovannara’s eldest daughter. “She is only seven years old and cannot focus on study because she always cries and misses daddy before she goes to bed. Since my dad was imprisoned last year, my sister has been stressed and depressed. She has to repeat her first grade this year.”
Sochiata wrote to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in the hope that they might intervene, but she has yet to receive a reply.
Rights groups consider the case against
politically motivated and in turn have called for political solution.
Jamie has expressed her disappointment with attempts to negotiate a political solution.
“If it is a political case and we have to negotiate through a political channel, I want to ask in return whether Hun Sen has ever respected his own words or not?” she said.
“We have seen examples in the past where there were negotiations for politicians to return to Cambodia and they still face arrest. Then, if we find a solution through a political channel, can he uphold the national interest.”
Despite the doubts, the case has brought hope to some in Cambodia.
“For Meach Sovannara, if his family or he filed a complaint to the US court, it will better serve his interests, because we see that Cambodian courts are not up to standard like the court over there,” said Choung Choungy, a lawyer for Sovannara. “The US court is more trustworthy. They have high level of judgment.”
Sklar said his team was preparing documents to notify the Cambodian government of their reasoning, after which the government has 60 days to respond.