Hun Sen says he won’t pardon two high-profile prisoners, cites foreign meddling

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday said he won’t pardon two of his most prominent opponents – opposition party leader Kem Sokha and Cambodian-American lawyer Theary Seng – who were imprisoned over the last year, saying the decision was necessary in light of recent foreign intervention in Cambodia.
“You are shaking hands while you are stepping on my feet,” Hun Sen said during a public appearance in Phnom Penh, using “you” to refer to foreign powers.
“I don’t pardon them because I don’t trust you,” he said. “You intend to destroy me.”
Hun Sen in recent months has frequently invoked the specter of national security threats at public appearances ahead of July 23 elections, which he has framed as a referendum on who can best maintain Cambodia’s sovereignty. 
“From now on, those who seek foreign intervention will stay in prison,” he said. “We don’t release you. Don’t include them in prisoners who will be pardoned or have a reduced prison term. We are stopping foreign intervention in Cambodia.”
In May, Hun Sen said that Western diplomats have insulted him in the past by visiting with Kem Sokha while he was under house arrest. He said he doesn’t “trust foreigners who insult me, insult my sovereignty, insult myself when they worked with me and at the same time worked with others.”
Theary Seng walks to court to face treason trial in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2020. Theary Seng was sentenced to six years in prison in June 2022 on treason charges, prompting condemnation from rights groups and the U.S. government. Credit: Heng Mengheang/Reuters
‘Let her die. So be it.’
Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 on treason charges and was finally sentenced in March to 27 years in prison.
Before his sentencing, ambassadors from Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States often met with him at his Phnom Penh home.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman went to see him during a June 2021 trip that also included a meeting with Hun Sen. An angry prime minister later said that she secretly went to Kem Sokha’s home without informing the foreign minister.
Over the last year, several top U.S. officials have also called for the immediate and unconditional release of Theary Seng, who was sentenced to six years in prison in June 2022 on treason charges. 
The sentence prompted condemnation from rights groups and the U.S. government. During a visit to Phnom Penh last August, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed Hun Sen to free her and other activists held on politically motivated charges.
The treason charges against Theary Seng and 50 other activists stemmed from abortive efforts in 2019 to bring about the return to Cambodia of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile in France since 2015. 
Theary Seng often used costumes to make a political statement. During one court session, she dressed as “Lady Justice,” complete with blindfold, scale and sword.
Before her trial, she underscored her readiness to go to jail by cutting her hair during a video interview with Radio Free Asia. After her sentencing, she was transferred to Preah Vihear Prison in the country’s far north.
Hun Sen on Wednesday said that even though she has dual citizenship, her case applies only to Cambodia law.
“The bald Apsara is being jailed in Preah Vihear,” he said, referring to a female celestial being often depicted in Cambodian culture. “She wants to hold a hunger strike? Let her die. So be it.”
Kem Sokha speaks as U.S Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy watches in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2019. Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 on treason charges and sentenced in March to 27 years in prison in a verdict widely condemned as politically motivated. Credit: Samrang Pring/Reuters
‘If we don’t shoot, they will look down on us’
Hun Sen also spoke again about drones that allegedly have been flying across the border from Vietnam in the country’s northeast.
Earlier this week, the prime minister ordered 500 troops and 200 anti-aircraft weapons systems to four provinces to hunt down the drones. He said the aircraft are believed to be operated by “ethnic insurgents” in Vietnam, but Vietnamese authorities have denied that the drones were theirs.
On Wednesday, Hun Sen offered a US$20,000 reward to each military unit that shoots one down.
“Starting this evening, we need to shoot it,” he said. “We can afford to shoot between two million to four million bullets. We haven’t shot it for a while, this is a chance to test it. We won’t be poor by shooting it. If we don’t shoot they will look down on us.”
He added that at least five drones crossed into Cambodia illegally on Tuesday night.
ADHOC spokesperson Soeung Senkarona told RFA that staff members for the rights group stationed in the four provinces haven’t been able to find any information about the alleged drone presence. 
“There is no irregularity reported,” he told RFA. 
Translated by Yun Samean. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.


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