The United States Senate has advanced an appropriations package that includes an amendment that would sanction Cambodian officials involved in the imprisonment of Cambodian-American human rights lawyer and activist Theary Seng.
The amendment from Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) advanced out of the Senate Appropriations Committee on July 20, as Theary Seng was in the midst of a 10-day hunger strike that concluded on Thursday.
It came just days before Cambodia’s national election on July 23, a one-sided affair that is expected to clear the way for a generational change in leadership. Prime Minister Hun Sen has said his eldest son, Gen. Hun Manet, will take his place later this month.
The amendment would require Secretary of State Antony Blinken to put Cambodian officials on a visa blacklist if there is “credible information” that they “have been involved in the unlawful detention of United States citizen Theary Seng.”
Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer representing Theary Seng, said the amendment “sends a very clear signal to Prime Minister Hun Sen about the views of the U.S. Senate about his imprisonment of Theary as a political prisoner.”
He also predicted it would pass the full U.S. Senate. Congress is on the clock to advance its budget to President Biden by the end of September to avoid a government shutdown.
The Durbin-Van Hollen amendment would not require the U.S. to release the names of sanctioned officials, and it doesn’t make specific recommendations for which officials should be held responsible.
Theary Seng, a longtime Cambodia-based activist, was jailed in June 2022 after being convicted of treason along with dozens of other opposition figures and dissidents. The evidence consisted largely of her Facebook posts in support of longtime opposition leader Sam Rainsy. She has since been detained in a prison in Preah Vihear province, far from Phnom Penh.
She escaped from Cambodia’s killing fields in the 1970s and grew up in the U.S., where she studied to be a human rights lawyer at the University of Michigan. She moved to Cambodia in 2004, and became an outspoken advocate for Khmer Rouge victims and those suffering under the current regime.
While many high-profile critics fled Cambodia in recent years as arrests became commonplace, Theary Seng refused to leave. At her court hearings, she wore ornate outfits that captured media attention within the country and abroad — and blasted the ruling party while speaking to reporters outside the court.
The American Bar Association's Center for Human Rights found that her case was neither independent nor impartial, calling it “one of many ongoing attempts by the Cambodian government to suppress dissent.” The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared earlier this month that she was “arbitrarily detained in violation of international law” and called for her release.
However, although the Biden administration has called for her release, it has not deemed her wrongfully detained, which would refer her case to the Special Presidential Envoy on Hostage Affairs and put more government resources into pushing for her release.
“Instead, the State Department continues to assert her detention is merely ‘politically motivated’ and ‘unjust,’ but that this falls short of being unlawful or wrongful,” said Genser, who runs the legal firm Perseus Strategies. “Given that according to the Oxford Dictionary, the word ‘unjust’ means ‘not based on or behaving according to what is morally right or fair,’ this is a distinction without a difference.”
Aides for Durbin told VOA Khmer they hoped the language in the amendment would help the push for that determination to be made, but referred questions about the delay to the State Department.
State Department spokesman Mathew Miller was pressed earlier this month on why the U.S. has withheld the determination. He said “the process is still ongoing,” but rejected the notion that it was a lower priority than recent high-profile cases in Russia involving WNBA star Brittney Griner and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.
“With respect to this case…there is no higher priority we can make it or higher pressure we can bring to bear than the Secretary of State himself personally raising a case with his counterparts,” Miller added.
Blinken said he pressed for Theary Seng’s release during a meeting with Hun Sen in August.
Durbin’s aides called the amendment a “big win” in broader efforts to pressure Cambodia over its crackdown on dissent and perceived threats to the ruling party, from opposition politicians to civil society groups and independent news media outlets.
They said the senator’s office had met with officials at the Cambodian embassy in Washington to press for Theary Seng’s release and convey that the imprisonment of her and other political prisoners were preventing deeper ties between the countries, limiting trade and investment and cultural exchanges.
One aide said he was served “oreos and lies” during those meetings, with another saying the Cambodian side largely “regurgitated” the charges against Theary Seng.
Durbin is also one of five Congressional sponsors — three senators and two U.S. House members — of the Cambodia Democracy and Human Rights Act, which was reintroduced in July. The bill would sanction Cambodian leaders involved in attacks on democracy and human rights abuses, as well as increasing scrutiny of Phnom Penh’s ties to Beijing.
It’s the fourth iteration of the bill to be introduced in recent years, with all previous versions failing to reach a floor vote. Durbin’s aides said this time could be different, as the “brazenness” of Cambodia’s abuses becomes greater and “disgust” rises among American policymakers.
“Theary Seng’s imprisonment doesn’t help,” said one aide. “There aren’t many allies of Cambodia’s government around here.”
Cambodia’s government has largely dismissed the draft U.S. legislation, with officials telling VOA Khmer that the Cambodia Democracy and Human Rights Act was “politically motivated,” and “due to confusion among US politicians” and meant to “create a political scene ahead of the election.”
Cambodian government officials appeared unmoved by Theary Seng’s hunger strike, which she began on July 17, shortly after the U.N.’s arbitrary detention ruling.
“I went on a hunger strike not only to call for my freedom, but for the freedom of all Cambodians. Even while my body was at its weakest, I remained incredibly determined and now feel 1,000 times stronger for this righteous cause,” she said in a statement after it ended.
“The regime cannot knock us down and we will not be silenced,” Theary Seng said.
Lt. Gen. Nuth Savna, spokesman for the General Department of Prisons, told VOA Khmer that her health appeared to be OK despite the hunger strike. “It is her right…we can’t do something to pressure her psychologically,” he said.
Chin Malin, spokesman of the Justice Minister, said it wouldn’t help her with legal proceedings.
“Hunger strikes are not a legal means to defend herself through the court’s legal procedures,” Chin Malin told VOA Khmer, suggesting she should find evidence and witnesses instead.
Theary Seng’s lawyers in Cambodia have appealed her case to the Appeal Court, but no hearing has been scheduled.
(Additional reporting, Sun Narin in Phnom Penh)