Cambodian dissident dresses up as ‘Lady Justice’ for trial

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — An outspoken critic of Cambodia’s government dressed up as “Lady Justice,” complete with scale and blindfold, to bring attention to her case as lawyers in her trial for treason presented their final arguments Tuesday.

Theary Seng, a Cambodian American lawyer, is charged with conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony, which together carry a maximum jail sentence of 12 years. The charges arose 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, who opposed his return, alleged Theary Seng was involved in organizing the trip, which she denies.

Four other defendants being tried on the same charges are former members and activists of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, of which Sam Rainsy was co-founder. Theary Seng denies belonging to the party.

“I am not afraid of prison. I am ready. I am prepared to go to prison if this dictatorial, autocratic regime continues with its injustice against justice itself. So I am not afraid of prison,” Theary Seng told journalists outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court in 2017 ordered the Cambodia National Rescue Party to be dissolved for allegedly plotting to seize power, but 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. His ruling party made a clean sweep of the National Assembly seats.

Opponents of Hun Sen, who has been in power for 37 years, criticize him for acting in an autocratic manner and keeping the opposition on a tight leash. He has said he intends to stay in office until 2028 and has endorsed one of his sons to be his successor.

To publicize her case, Theary Seng dressed on Tuesday as Lady Justice, a symbol of law who is traditionally depicted as a Roman goddess bearing a sword and a balancing scale and wearing a blindfold and flowers in her hair. On previous trial days, she had dressed up in a prison-style orange outfit with ankle shackles and as a classical Cambodian Apsara dancer, telling reporters she was expressing her belief that the trial was “political theater.”

She did not attend Tuesday’s court hearing when a security guard refused to let her in unless she removed the flowers from her hair and left the sword and scale outside the courtroom. She stayed outside with supporters and reporters and let her lawyer represent her.

“I am ‘Lady Justice.’ This autocratic regime is putting justice itself on trial. This autocratic regime uses the court as its weapon,” said Theary Seng, who graduated from University of Michigan Law School in the United States. “It is unjust when the law is not based on justice. My weapon is truth. Truth is eternal. … Truth is freedom.”

Her lawyer, Choung Chou Ngy, said the court is expected to deliver its verdict on June 14.

In a related case in March, the court convicted 21 people of treason and related charges for their nonviolent political opposition to Cambodia’s government. Seven exiled leaders of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party received 10-year prison terms in absentia, including Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile since 2016. Another 13 defendants were ordinary party supporters whom the court ordered to serve more than three years.

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