Khmer News in En

Meach Sovannara Wins the First Legal Round in U.S. Case against Hun Manet

Meach Sovannar’s case in the U.S. accusing Cambodian General Hun Manet of unlawful imprisonment, torture, terrorism and other crimes cleared its first legal hurdle on Thursday when a federal district judge in the case decided the court has jurisdiction, according to one of his attorneys.

Judge George H. Wu of the Central District Court of California ruled that the case against the son of long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen could go forward, Morton Sklar told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“The judge in essence granted everything that we wanted,” Sklar told RFA. “It was a tremendous success this morning, and what he granted us was the right to carry out what’s called jurisdictional discovery under the supervision of the court.”

Sklar said the decision was a key to unlocking information necessary to the case.

“That means we’re able to obtain disclosure of vital pieces of information that the government of Cambodia and Hun Manet previously have been keeping secret, and we will be able to do this very, very quickly,” he said.

The suit alleges that Hun Manet’s family connections and leadership role within Cambodia’s security forces make him liable for the emotional and financial damage borne by Sovannara’s family.

Hun Manet heads the Cambodian military’s anti-terror unit, is deputy chairman joint staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and is the deputy commander of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit – an elite unit that has often been at the center of complaints about rights abuses.

Hun Manet is widely viewed as the successor to his father Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen who has ruled the country for more than 30 years.

The country of Cambodia is also named as a defendant, and Sklar said Wu’s ruling gives Hun Manet two choices.

“What that means is that the government of Cambodia and Hun Manet have a choice: Either they can agree and let the court-ordered jurisdictional discovery proceed, so that we can ask these questions and get the answers, or they could say: ‘No, we’re not going to participate in this,’ in which case under the court rules they have automatically lost the case and we have a verdict against both the government of Cambodia and Hun Manet.”

In April, as Hun Manet toured parts of the U.S. that are home to large Cambodian diaspora communities, he was greeted by Cambodian-Americans protesting Phnom Penh’s human rights violations and domestic property seizures.

On the last day of Hun Manet’s visit, he was served with court documents by a private investigator named Paul Hayes, who was hospitalized after allegedly being thrown to the ground by Hun Manet’s bodyguards outside of a restaurant in Long Beach, California.

Hayes’s subpoena was tied to a wrongful imprisonment suit brought in a U.S. federal court by Meach Sovannara, who is the Cambodian National Rescue Party’s information director. He has dual U.S. and Cambodian citizenship.

Meach Sovannara was given a 20-year sentence for taking part in a protest in Phnom Penh in late 2014. He and 10 other activists were jailed on insurrection charges for clashing with police over the closure of a protest site in the capital.

While Cambodia’s courts are viewed as a tool of the Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the Cambodian strong man isn’t likely to find U.S. courts are so friendly.

“What we’ve been able to do with this case is get a U.S. court, not subject to the dictates of Hun Sen and the Hun Sen government, exercising independent jurisdiction to deal with what’s going on in Cambodia,” said Sklar.

“There has to be that outside monitoring, and outside way of checking on what’s happening in Cambodian government. Without that there will be no improvement in the human rights and democracy situation in Cambodia,” he added.

Sklar told RFA that Wu seemed to be a “very determined and very clear-cut judge” who “wants results.”

“When the counsel for the defendant tried to object to the discovery, the judge said: ‘This is my order. If you do not agree to let this take place, if you do not come to an agreement on the items to be included and the questions to be asked, I will  order it done myself.'”

Hun Manet’s attorney, John Purcell, could not be reached after the hearing, but he has previously said that the accusations made in Meach Sovannara’s complaint are “groundless.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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The Floating Villages on Cambodia's Tonle Sap Are Being Scuttled

Thousands of ethnic Vietnamese living in the floating villages that dot the Tonle Sap are being repatriated to Vietnam as their livelihood drains away and they can’t come up with the documentation needed to stay in Cambodia, RFA’s Khmer Service has learned.

While hard numbers are difficult to come by, VietnamNet reported that 5,000 ethnic Vietnamese families who had been living in the floating villages are now living in Vietnam.

A group of Vietnamese still living in the floating village in Kampong Chhnang’s Svay Chrum Commune told RFA that while they were born in Cambodia they are leaving because environmental damage to the Tonle Sap has decimated the fishing and they can’t prove their residency in Cambodia.

Nguyen Yaing An told RFA that while life is tough enough, Cambodian authorities have tried to move them from place to place, and lately the authorities attempted to convince them buy land to live near what is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia.

The land offer appears genuine, but it is costly and the plots also lack titles or other documentation that prove the new owners have the right to stay.

“The land they wanted to sell to us, came with no documents and costs 1,000 to 2,000 U.S. dollars,” he said. “We do not have the money to buy them. We do not even have enough rice to cook.”

Nguyen Yaing An told RFA that if the situation becomes more difficult, his family will drag their floating house to Vietnam.

Another Vietnamese resident on the lake, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that about 60 Vietnamese families from the Svay Chrum floating village plan to leave for Vietnam in October.

“They told us to live here temporarily, that means that they will chase us away again,” the Vietnamese said. “If they move us this time to live off the lake, we do not have the money to buy land.”

For Sale signs and empty houses

Nearly 1,500 floating houses owned by mostly by ethnic Vietnamese villagers from Psar Chhnang commune were moved to Svay Chum Commune in late 2015.  Many of those houses are vacant, or they have “for sale” signs posted on them.

Tot Kim Sroy, the Minorities Rights Organization (MIRO) coordinating official in Kampong Chhnang, told RFA that the poverty among the Vietnamese living on the lake is epidemic, but the biggest challenge is the lack of fish.

The Tonlé Sap River connects the lake to the Mekong River to form the central part of a complex hydrological system in the Cambodian floodplain. It covers a myriad of natural and agricultural habitats that the Mekong replenishes with water and sediments annually.

The natural seasonal inflow and outflow of water has been hammered by a combination of global warming, overfishing and illegal fishing, the mostly illegal clearance of surrounding forest lands and the Asian dam-building boom that threatens the entire Mekong River system.

Most threatened lake

The Global Nature Fund, based in Radolfzell, Germany, named the Tonle Sap the world’s most threatened lake in 2016.

While the lake is under stress, ethnic Vietnamese living off the Tonle Sap also fear the Cambodian authorities. Animosity between Vietnam and Cambodia goes back centuries, but it was heightened by the Vietnamese war that ousted the Khmer Rouge and paved the way for long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ascension to power.

Accusations over the demarcation of the border between Vietnam and Cambodia has become a prominent feature in Cambodian politics as Hun Sen’s opponents have attempted to paint the strong man as tool of the Vietnamese.

“We could not get the actual number of how many families are living in this area because they have been hiding in fear for their safety,” Tot Kim Sroy told RFA.

Cambodian Interior Ministry’s spokesperson Khiev Sopheak told RFA that he did not know how many Vietnamese families with legal documents have returned to Vietnam.

“Right after the liberation in 1979, our east border line was not safeguarded seriously,” he said. “I hope that Vietnamese friends will understand that the Cambodian government with the ruling CPP will fully implement the country’s immigration law.”

Reported by Sopheak Chin for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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Trapped in Cambodia’s Prey Sar Prison, Meach Sovannara Keeps Up the Fight

Meach Sovannara knows his chances of winning a reprieve in Cambodia’s court system that could spring him from that country’s notorious Prey Sar prison anytime soon are slim.

The Cambodian-American is serving a 20-year prison term for allegedly fomenting insurrection against a Cambodian government that has been dominated for more than three decades by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

While Meach Sovannara, the media director for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, has dual U.S. and Cambodian citizenship and his family still lives in Long Beach, Calif., he has been locked away in Phnom Penh since July.

“Our hope is very slim,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service after a recent hearing on his case in Cambodia’s appellate court. “As of yesterday [Prime Minister] Hun Sen sent a political message purporting to have threatened the court just a day before the court heard our appeal.”

Meach Sovannara and 10 other opposition figures were sentenced to prison terms of up to 20 years on insurrection charges after a demonstration in July 2014 that resulted in violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park.

Although Meach Sovannara and the other opposition activists received stiff sentences, rights groups say that none of the defendants was identified as having committed an act of violence during the event.

Hun Sen announced on Aug. 22 that he would refuse to ask King Norodom Sihmoni to pardon any of the activists.

“As a former fighter, peace finder and national reconciliater, I will not sign a letter to set anyone free,” he said during a forum in Phnom Penh. “Anyone who is found guilty by the court must go to jail.”

Meach Sovannara says the remarks from the Cambodian strongman were, in effect, orders to the court.

“The court is surely a political tool,” he said.

Even though Meach Sovannara says his hopes of getting relief from the Phnom Penh are thin, he isn’t showing any signs of backing down.

“It should be time now that Mr. Hun Sen should know that enough is enough for him if he wants his children to do politics in the future,” he said.

Looking to the United States

While the Cambodian court system is an unfriendly place for opponents of Hun Sen, Meach Sovannara is hoping that a novel argument in U.S. courts may help free him from Prey Sar.

The first hearings in the suit are scheduled for Sept. 1 in federal district court in Los Angeles.

Foreign government officials are generally protected by sovereignty from being brought to trial. But the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act recognizes exceptions that include violent acts again U.S. citizens abroad, and Meach Sovannara’s case may be the first in the U.S. to test those exceptions, his attorney Morton Sklar told RFA.

“Our underlying lawsuit is based on some special U.S. statutes that allow the U.S. courts to deal with tort [compensation for damages] claims against foreign governments that engage in acts of torture and violent attacks against U.S. citizens abroad,” Sklar said.

The suit contends that Cambodian Lieutenant General Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s son,  plays a “major role” in the Cambodian security apparatus that confronted protesters in Freedom Park in 2014 by virtue of his rank, family connections and position within the leadership’s “inner circle”.

The suit accuses Hun Manet of wrongfully imprisoning and torturing Meach Sovannara. The suit also names the Cambodian government as a defendant.

It alleges that Hun Manet’s family connections and leadership role within Cambodia’s security forces make him liable for the emotional and financial damage borne by Sovannara’s family.

Hun Manet heads the Cambodian military’s anti-terror unit, is deputy chairman joint staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and is the deputy commander of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit – an elite unit that has often been at the center of complaints about rights abuses.

Hun Manet is widely viewed as his father’s successor to the country’s highest office.

‘Substantial’ involvement

“His involvement is pretty substantial all around,” Sklar said. “Hun Manet is his father’s right-hand person. He gets involved in a lot of stuff.”

It’s not the first time the Hun family has been sued in the U.S. In 2005, opposition leader Sam Rainsy and U.S. rights worker Ron Abney and others filed a similar suit alleging that Hun Sen was involved in 1997 grenade attack that killed at least 16 people and wounded at least 120. Abney was one of those wounded.

That suit was withdrawn in a political deal, but not before the U.S. courts entered a default judgment against Hun Sen, who had ignored the legal action. Sklar says Hun Manet learned from that case.

“Hun Manet learned that lesson,” Sklar said. “That’s why he has a lawyer. That’s why he’s offering a defense to the case.”

RFA could not reach either Hun Manet or defense ministry spokesperson, Chhum Socheat for comments, but Hun Manet’s attorney, John Purcell, told RFA that the accusations made in Meach Sovannara’s complaint are “groundless.”

Even before the opening arguments have been presented, the case has already taken a strange but violent twist.

As process server Paul Hayes was attempting to serve Hun Manet with a subpoena in the case during a visit the Cambodian general made to Long Beach in April, he was involved in an altercation with Hun Manet’s security detail.

Online videos appear to show Long Beach police spraying tear gas at Hun Manet’s bodyguards and protesters after Hayes was allegedly assaulted by the bodyguards while serving him with the subpoena in the Meach Sovannara lawsuit.

A criminal probe

According to Sklar, the Long Beach Police Department has opened a criminal probe into the event.

The incident at Long Beach’s La Lune restaurant put Hayes in the hospital, and may have opened up a can of worms for Hun Manet.

One of the key claims in the early stages of the case concerns whether or not Hun Manet was actually served with the documents.

“The reason it didn’t get into his hands, is that the process server, Paul Hayes, was about to do that,” Sklar said. “He was about to deliver the documents when Hun Manet’s bodyguards grabbed him, pulled him off his feet and threw him to the ground head first with very serious injury.”

One of the questions the court will have to answer is whether the bodyguards illegally interfered with the service of the court papers.

“We have to get the full facts of what happened at La Lune restaurant related to the service and the attack on Paul Hayes in order for the court to answer the question as to whether service was adequate,” Sklar said.

Reported by Yang Chandara and Moniroth Morm for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong and Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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Masked Troops Patrol Area Around Cambodia National Rescue Party Headquarters

Armed forces in paramilitary uniforms and black masks patrolled the area around the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party headquarters on Wednesday, in what CNRP leaders said is an attempt by the government to intimidate voters.

Helicopters circled in the air above the CNRP headquarters, boats with military personnel plied the water, and armed forces in vehicles and on foot cruised the streets around the building from about 10 a.m. to about 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

Standing in front of the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh, party spokesman Yim Sovann told reporters the show of force is a threat to Cambodian citizens just as voter registration in Cambodia starts on Thursday.

“They need to explain to the public via the media in order to allay citizens’ concerns and fears, because tomorrow is voter registration day,” he said. “We should create a conducive atmosphere without any threats.”

A defense ministry official dismissed the CNRP’s concerns, saying the operation was a routine military exercise that occurs every year.

The CNRP headquarters has become a symbol of resistance to a government that has been dominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for more than three decades.

In May, heavily-armed police searched the building in an attempt to arrest CNRP’s Acting President Kem Sokha for his failure to appear in legal cases related to his alleged affair with a young hairdresser.

Since then Kem Sokha has been holed up inside in virtual house arrest as the court issued an order preventing him from leaving the country.

The Kem Sokha cases are viewed by many inside and outside the country as part of a political strategy by Hun Sen to use the courts to attack CNRP members and other opponents and imprison or discredit them before elections in 2017 and 2018.

New Warrant for Sam Rainsy

That strategy apparently took another turn on Wednesday as the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued a new warrant for CNRP President Sam Rainsy.

Sam Rainsy left the country following the removal of his parliamentary immunity in November 2015 by the ruling CPP over a warrant issued for his arrest in an old defamation case. Kem Sokha was named acting president after Sam Rainsy left.

The new warrant accuses Sam Rainsy of being an accomplice to forgery and use of fake public documents and incitement in 2015 related to a controversy over Cambodia’s borders with Vietnam.

CNRP officials dismissed the new warrant, with Sam Rainsy telling the RFA Khmer Service TV that he will not play the game.

“This is communist language.  No one can say anything,” he said. “People just speak the truth, or just express their rights and they will be accused of incitement.”

Hun Sen’s relationship with Vietnam has been used by the opposition to raise questions about Hun Sen’s loyalties, and Hun Sen has attacked political opponents who have attempted to make it an issue.

Vietnam and Cambodia have had a fraught relationship for centuries, but the link that the opposition uses to try to embarrass Hun Sen dates from the 1979-89 Vietnamese occupation that ended the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge.

Hun Sen emerged and was appointed during the period of Hanoi’s control over Cambodia.

As Cambodian foreign minister and then prime minister, Hun Sen played an important role in the 1991 Paris Peace Talks that brokered peace among Cambodia’s warring factions.

In April CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An was jailed after Hun Sen ordered police to arrest anyone accusing the government of using “fake” maps to cede national territory to neighboring Vietnam.

In 2015 police arrested Sam Rainsy Party Senator Hong Sok Hour after he posted comments on social media that claimed an article in the 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Treaty was meant to dismantle, rather than define, the border between the two countries.

Although the Sam Rainsy Party merged with the Human Rights Party to form the CNRP, the party still holds seats in the Senate. It is expected to fully integrate with the CNRP after the next national elections.

Another Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker is also facing legal action as Hun Sen has sued Thak Lany and Sam Rainsy for defamation over remarks they allegedly made that tie the July 10 murder of critic Kem Ley to the prime minister.

Thak Lany denies she made the remarks, saying that her comments were edited to make her look like she was lodging the criticism.

Another parliamentary immunity inquiry

On Wednesday a Cambodian senate committee met to consider whether Thak Lany’s immunity should be lifted.

The Cambodian constitution gives lawmakers immunity parliamentary immunity, but it can be lifted with a two-thirds of the national assembly.

“The permanent committee found that she did not accept her mistakes, accepted the fact that she said so but insisted that the video was edited,” said senate spokesman Mam Bun Neang said. “That’s why Samdech’s [Hun Sen] attorney filed a complaint to the court to take legal action.”

Teav Vannol, a Sam Rainsy party leader and a member of the senate’s permanent committee, told RFA that he requested the senate retain Thak Lany’s immunity.

“This is a minor issue of expressing one’s own idea that should be solved by simply apologizing in public rather than taking away her immunity,” he said. “It is not true, as the accusations in court assert, that there was an act of defamation and incitement that caused social unrest.”

He added: “It is an act of political pressure against the opposition party which will cause the political situation to become even more tense.”

The Phnom Penh Post, quoting two anonymous sources, reported that Thak Lany is believed to have fled the country.

Attempts to reach Phnom Penh court’s spokesperson Ly Sophanna for comment on the issue were unsuccessful.

Cambodia’s local elections are slated for 2017 and the national elections for 2018.

While the CPP has dominated Cambodia for more than 30 years, it suffered a dramatic drop in support during the country’s last election in 2013, and analysts say it could see even more erosion in the upcoming elections.

Reported for RFA’s Khmer Service by Moniroth Morm, Vuthy Tha and Chandara Yang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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Interview: 'What the current government is doing against the opposition party is savage.'

Cambodia National Rescue Party President Sam Rainsy wants to end his self-imposed exile in time to cast a vote in the country’s upcoming elections, but he faces arrest upon returning. He left the country following his removal from parliament in November 2015 by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party over a warrant issued for his arrest in an old defamation case.

With voter registration in Cambodia running from Sept. 1 to Nov. 29, if he wishes to register, the window of opportunity for his return is relatively short. Local elections are scheduled for 2017, and national elections are slated for 2018.

In interviews with Radio Free Asia Khmer Service journalist Sarada Training this week, Sam Rainsy discussed his desire to return, what it would take and the campaign Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP are waging against the opposition.

RFA: What makes you believe that you will be able to return to Cambodia?

Sam Rainsy: It is based on my personal past experiences. It is not the first time that I have been forced into exile. This is the fourth time now. For each of the three previous occasions, I was always able to partake in the elections. I strongly believe that there will be a political solution, not just for myself and Kem Sokha, but for all jailed CNRP activists and NGO workers.

RFA: What would you need to secure your safety so you could return to Cambodia?

Sam Rainsy: I believe in international pressure. It works very well, and it will work again to defuse this current political tension. None of the previous political solutions came without international pressure. No government can survive without international support. Cambodia is not an exception. What the current government is doing against the opposition party is savage. That only increases international pressure. At some point, a solution must be found.

RFA:  Kem Sokha has been holed up in the CNRP headquarters because of the actions by the government in relation to the cases involving his alleged affair. Now that the voter registration period is coming up, do you think he will be able to register to vote?

SAM RAINSY: The CNRP is not made up of just one Kem Sokha and one Sam Rainsy. It has millions of Kem Sokhas and Sam Rainsys in Cambodia. About 10 million Cambodians are voters. They want change. This change can only happen when all together we vote for the CNRP. What is most important is that we are united and ready to vote for the CNRP in the next elections. The CNRP victory is for all Cambodians.

RFA: You are in exile. Kem Sokha is in hiding. Prime Minister Hun Sen is launching an early political campaign in different parts of Cambodia. Do you think there will be a free and fair atmosphere for the next elections?

SAM RAINSY: Regardless of how unfair and unfree the elections could be, Cambodians are clearly aware of that. The ruling party is in a panic mode now. They are so frustrated about losing the elections that they have resorted to using the court and killings to intimidate the opposition. They know very well that if the elections are free and fair they will lose. Such cheap and savage means employed by the ruling party against us are enough to let people better know that we are stronger.

RFA: Does that say something about the CPP?

Since the CPP only persecutes the CNRP it means that the CPP is losing faith in its own ability to make a difference. Though there are several other political parties, the CNRP is being harassed by the CPP constantly and persistently. Cambodians trust only the CNRP to save our country from the current regime of dictatorship.

RFA:  If you and Kem Sokha are banned from registering to vote, will the CNRP boycott the next elections?

SAM RAINSY: No, it won’t. We will do our best to push for the elections. The change we envisage has to happen through peaceful means and through free and fair elections. I have strong faith in our people, and they will go out to vote for change.

Translated by Nareth Muong for RFA’s Khmer Service.

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Wife of Slain Cambodian Government Critic Leaves Country

The widow of slain government critic and scholar Kem Ley has left Cambodia with her children for an undisclosed third country, a Buddhist monk who is a member of the pundit’s funeral commission told RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday.

Bou Rachana and her children are now in a secure place which cannot be disclosed, and she has prepared a letter of authorization for the funeral commission to hold a traditional 100-day funeral for Kem Ley on her behalf, said monk But Buntenh.

The ceremony will be held for three days on Oct. 14-16, though the committee must decide where to hold it, said But Buntenh, who , who is also president of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice.

Nearly two weeks ago, Bou Rachana asked the CENTRAL, a labor-oriented NGO that provides legal aid to Cambodian workers, to prepare legal action related to the murder of her husband.

Kem Ley was gunned down in broad daylight on July 10 when he stopped in a Star Mart convenience store beside a Caltex gas station in the capital Phnom Penh.

Cambodian authorities have charged former soldier Oueth Ang with the killing, who has said he shot Kem Ley over a U.S. $3,000 debt.

Kem Ley was buried in southwestern Cambodia’s Takeo province two weeks later after a weekend funeral procession that drew around 2 million mourners.

Just days before he was gunned down, he had discussed on an RFA call-in show a report by London-based group Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 31 years.

Reported by Sel San for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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