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Cambodian court sentences American lawyer amid crackdown on dissent

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

A court in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, on Tuesday, convicted a Cambodian American lawyer and activist of treason. Dozens of others were also convicted as Prime Minister Hun Sen continues his crackdown on dissent. Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The verdict was never much in doubt, which is why a little over a year ago, Theary Seng took a pair of scissors to her flowing brown hair, anticipating prison and prison lice.

THEARY SENG: You know, I like long hair. I look like Peter Pan right now. And even though I'm saving a lot of money on shampoo, which is a good thing, I wanted to communicate with this regime that I do not fear it and I do not fear facing jail on unjust charges.

SULLIVAN: The court sentenced her on Tuesday to six years. She and many of the others were charged in connection with a failed attempt by an opposition leader to return from exile in 2019. The opposition party was disbanded just ahead of the 2018 general election Hun Sen's party then swept.

PHIL ROBERTSON: The verdict against Theary Seng and the over 50 other people who were convicted in court - these are based on bogus charges.

SULLIVAN: Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

ROBERTSON: The court is far from independent. In fact, it's a kangaroo court. It's something that does the bidding of the ruling political party and the prime minister. It appears that Hun Sen and his government are trying to wipe out any vestige of the political opposition.

SULLIVAN: During the months-long trial, Theary Seng doubled down on her defiance, appearing in front of the court in different costumes, sometimes as a traditional Cambodian dancer, another time in prison garb and in Chinese peasant clothes, suggesting Prime Minister Hun Sen has mortgaged his country's future to China. As the trial progressed, many of the accused chose to flee into exile. Theary Seng told me that wasn't an option for her.

SENG: This is home. No one can force me to leave my home.

SULLIVAN: It's a home the U.S.-educated lawyer had to flee once before, after the genocidal Khmer Rouge killed her parents. And that's another sore spot for her, the Khmer Rouge tribunal that was supposed to find justice for the survivors, but after 15 years, only managed to convict three aging men.

SENG: The Khmer Rouge tribunal was our only opportunity, really, for reconciliation, for justice. And it turned out to be a major sham.

SULLIVAN: A sham, she said, because the United Nations accepted the idea of a hybrid U.N.-Cambodian tribunal under Cambodian law, one that allowed Prime Minister Hun Sen to effectively decide who would and wouldn't be tried. She also told me last year she believed her U.S. passport bought her some protection. But Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch says her lengthy sentence shows Hun Sen could only be embarrassed publicly for so long.

ROBERTSON: They're sending a message that they don't care what the international community thinks when it comes to core issues of political power.

SULLIVAN: But Theary Seng was defiant to the end, standing outside the courthouse the morning of the verdicts dressed as Lady Liberty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENG: Today, this autocratic regime wants to imprison freedom.

SULLIVAN: She was dragged off by police shortly after and has been sent to a remote prison in the North, where access to her lawyer and U.S. consular officials will be difficult.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.