PHNOM PENH – Cambodian security forces on Tuesday briefly detained a Cambodian-American lawyer who is a prominent rights activist as she walked barefoot near the prime minister's residence in Phnom Penh, wearing a prison-style orange outfit and Khmer Rouge-era ankle shackles.
Theary Seng was on her way to a court hearing and was livestreaming her progress via social media when a number of uniformed men surrounded her and blocked her way.
Journalists at the scene say security forces then put her into a car and took her away.
She was released, shortly afterwards, and arrived at Phnom Penh Municipal Court for the resumption of her trial on treason charges. She was still wearing the orange outfit, but court officials asked her to remove the ankle shackles.
Theary Seng is an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen who has been in power for 36 years and has kept a tight leash on all political activity in the country.
The Cambodian-American lawyer has previously used clothing to make symbolic points, during the current legal proceedings against her. On Dec. 7, she attended court dressed as a classical Cambodian Apsara dancer, telling reporters she was expressing her belief that the trial was “political theatre”.
Theary Seng lived through the brutal Khmer Rouge era as a child, during which she lost both her parents. She left for America where she qualified as a lawyer, then returned to Cambodia in 1995.
She did not immediately clarify the reasons for her physical appearance on Tuesday, but the use of the ankle shackles is likely a reference both to the repression of the Pol Pot period and to current Prime Minister Hun Sen’s past as a mid-level Khmer Rouge commander.
“I’m wearing shackles from my childhood prison during the Khmer Rouge. During the Khmer Rouge, I was detained as a child with my mom, with my four brothers,” she told The Associated Press before she was detained. “These are not the exact shackles that I wore, possibly, but they’re from the prison where I was detained and it’s the shackles from that era."
At least 1.7 million Cambodians are estimated to have died under the brutal rule of the ultra-Maoist movement during its almost four-year rule, from April 1975 to January 1979.
Theary Seng is facing charges of conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony, which together carry a maximum jail sentence of 12 years. They arise from a failed attempt by leading opposition figure Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia in November 2019, after a period of self-exile. Cambodian authorities allege Theary Seng was involved in the trip’s organization. She says she has no political affiliation.
44 other people are being tried on the same charges, but last month a judge ordered Theary Seng’s trial split off from the others.
The trial, which had been suspended since November 2020, is just a small part of a crackdown that began in 2017 when the country’s high court ordered the Cambodia National Rescue Party dissolved. It is widely believed the action was taken to help ensure that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party would win the 2018 general election.
Hun Sen says he intends to stay in office until 2028. Last December, he endorsed one of his sons to be his successor.
___ Harmer reported from Bangkok.