Members of the U.S. Congress have welcomed new sanctions against the head of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit for alleged human rights abuses.
The sanctions were imposed on Tuesday by the Treasury Department targeting General Hing Bun Hieng, a member of Hun Sen’s inner circle.
The move came after the U.S. State Department and Senate repeatedly warned that punitive measures would be forthcoming if Cambodia did not reverse recent anti-democratic actions, such as the dissolution of the opposition and jailing of its leader, Kem Sokha.
“The Treasury Department did the right thing,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in an e-mail to VOA Khmer. “It is no secret that the Cambodian security forces, and high ranking government officials, are involved in corruption and political violence. A country that once had a chance at democracy has become a one-man police state.”
The Treasury Department said that among the human rights abuses committed by the bodyguard unit was an incident in 1997 where four hand-grenades were tossed into a peaceful protest led by former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, which wounded a US citizen.
“I wish Ron Abney, the American pro-democracy activist injured in a 1997 grenade attack in Phnom Penh, were alive today to hear this news,” Leahy said.
The sanctions are based on the new Global Magnitsky Act 2016, which authorized the US to freeze assets of human rights abusers and corrupt officials.
“The actions taken against General Bun Hieng should serve as a wake-up call to Hun Sen and others in his regime--continue to go against your word to your people and we’re going to take action against you,” said Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-CA).
Lowenthal said more officials could be subjected to sanctions if the political and human rights situation does not improve.
“This action by the Treasury Department, while not taken under the Cambodia Democracy Act (CDA) that we are trying to get passed, mirrors the kind of actions that will be taken against Cambodian government and military officials under the CDA,” he said.
The Bodyguard Unit is accused of involvement in attacks on unarmed Cambodians, including an attack in 2015 on two opposition lawmakers in front of the National Assembly, according to the Treasury Department.
Three of its members who confessed to the crime were briefly jailed but later promoted after their release.
“Human rights are important and beating the opposition, the kind of violence we’ve seen, it has no place in any society and we want to see democracy, real democracy, in Cambodia,” said Ed Royce (R-CA).
Congressman Ted Yoho (R-FL) said: “What they’ve done is wrong and you know as they get sanctioned people are going to have to decide are they going to do business with people who are sanctioned or allow people to do business in their country? Or are they going to do business with a country like ours that honors the rule of law?”
Opposition leader Kem Sokha was jailed in September 2017 on treason charges and 118 opposition senior officials were banned from politics for five years.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a strong critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen, said he wanted Congress and the Trump administration to take further punitive action against Hun Sen’s regime, including trade sanctions, saying measures thus far “have proven to be inadequate.”
“Sen. Cruz warned last year that the United States would have to reevaluate its preferential trade policy with Cambodia if Hun Sen continued dismantling democracy,” said Maria Jeffrey, a spokesperson for Cruz. “The Treasury sanctions are a good first step, but until freedom is restored to Cambodia, they’re just a start.”