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Cambodian Government Accused of Torture

LOS ANGELES (CN) - The Cambodian government imprisoned and tortured a man in its "systemic and long-standing campaign of persecution and torture," he and his family claim in court.

Meach Sovannara and his wife and three children sued The Royal Kingdom of Cambodia and Hun Manet, who is deputy chief of staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, vice-commander of the prime minister's bodyguard unit, and director of the Anti-Terrorism Department of the Armed Forces, on Friday in Federal Court.

"This case is really about democracy and how the democratic process would be viewed by countries wanting to remain viable on the international stage," his attorney Nazareth Haysbert told Courthouse News.

"Many people are jailed simply for speaking their minds and protesting government corruption. When our client did it, they threw him in prison and literally threw away the keys. It was not necessary, what they did to him."

Sovannara is still in prison. Haysbert said the lawsuit seeks to win his release and the release of other political prisoners in Cambodia.

The attorney takes particular issue with the fact that Hun Manet, a known violator of international human rights law, is allowed to visit the United States "as if nothing is amiss."

"He shouldn't be allowed to roam freely in the U.S," Haysbert said.

Nor should he be allowed to call himself a West Point graduate, he added. When asked if West Point is able to revoke degrees, Haysbert said he was not sure, but "that should be on the table. Why consider him a West Point graduate?"

In the 39-page lawsuit, Sovannara says his ordeal began when he was arrested for "insurrection" for helping organize and attend a July 15, 2014 demonstration at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, the national capital.

"In the aftermath of the Cambodian national elections held on July 28, 2013, the CPP [Cambodian People's Party] engaged in a violent crackdown on worker rights protests, land eviction demonstrations, and protests related to the manipulation and stealing of the national election by Hun Sen's CPP party," the complaint states.

Hun Sen is president of the CPP and prime minister of Cambodia. He is not named as a defendant.

Several international observers and human rights groups denounced the elections as rigged to let Hun Sen maintain his chokehold on the country.

A year later, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party organized a demonstration to protest the fairness of the elections at Freedom National Park, near the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh.

Sovannara attended the demonstration as media director and chief spokesman for the party, and "his subsequent arrest, prosecution and long-term incarceration was based on his participation in that protest demonstration."

Roughly four months after the demonstration, Sovannara was arrested and charged with three crimes, including "leading an insurrection." He was sentenced to 20 years in the Prey Sar prison, "which the Cambodian government has used for many years as a site for incarcerating and torturing its critics under very harsh inhuman conditions," according to the complaint.

Human Rights Watch and other groups denounced the trial as a "kangaroo court" in which the government denied him basic due process, such as having his attorneys present, according to the complaint.

Sovannara has been held in Prey Sar prison since July 21, 2015, "suffering very harsh, severe and violent treatment that has seriously and adversely affected his health and well-being, and that has endangered his life."


The prison is notorious. "Reliable reports" indicate that 22 inmates are crammed into a 9-by-9-foot cell with no windows and poor ventilation; family members must buy inmates basic items such as food and water from the prison staff; and inmates who do not pay off the guards are routinely tortured, according to the complaint.

Sovannara says his abuse at the hands of Manet and Manet's subordinates constitute torture and international terrorism.

Several people and groups have urged the government to release Sovannara and other political prisoners. Secretary of State John Kerry made such a request when he visited Hun Sen in January, and Amnesty International has issued three urgent action reports on behalf of Sovannara protesting his arrest, unfair trial, and false imprisonment.

Sovannara calls his arrest, torture and imprisonment part of a "systemic and ongoing method of harsh political repression and intimidation through misuse and control of the judicial and law enforcement processes in Cambodia, and through the use of police and security personnel controlled by the government."

Hun Sen and his party have exercised harsh, violent, and repressive control over Cambodia for 30 years, squelching political opposition and preventing opponents from exercising free speech and free association rights, according to the complaint.

Hun Sen maintains his power through the military and security forces headed by his eldest son, defendant Hun Manet.

Hun Manet, who graduated from West Point Academy in 1999, is a citizen of Cambodia and a long-time resident of the United States. In addition to being head of the military and security, he is a principal government advisor who decides how to deal with members of opposing parties, including whether to file criminal charges against and prosecute government critics, the complaint states.

Manet is also a member of Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit, which the FBI has investigated for assaults on peaceful protests, such as a 1997 grenade attack that killed 16 people, including an American.

Sovannara claims officials with the Ministries of Defense, Justice, and Interior know of Hun Manet's "tortious actions" but either approve of what he is doing or refuse to punish him.

"As Human Rights Watch and other highly respected, independent human rights organizations have found, the pattern and practice of repression and punishment of those criticizing the government or taking part in political opposition activities are part of a long-standing and systemic effort to intimidate the population of Cambodia, and to prevent meaningful political opposition from becoming organized and taking place," the complaint states.

Sovannara's wife, Jamie Meach, who lives with their three children in Long Beach, says she has not received any income since her husband's imprisonment, causing her to lose their family home and move in with friends "in very crowded and difficult conditions."

She sends what little money she earns from her work as a journalist to Prey Sar prison to buy food and water for her husband. She says she has been ostracized by her community and suffers from "severe, long-term emotional and physical distress."

An email to the Cambodian Office of the Council of Ministers on Monday bounced back.

Email and phone messages to the Cambodian Consulate in Long Beach on Monday were not immediately returned.

A call to West Point's media services to inquire about revocation of degrees was not answered.

The Sovannaras ask the court to assume jurisdiction and award them punitive damages for torture through extralegal detention, international terrorism, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery, false imprisonment, and loss of consortium.

Attorney Haysbert, with Haysbert Moultrie in Los Angeles, is assisted by Morton Sklar with the Steering Committee for Cambodia, in Garrett Park, Md.

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