Chan Soveth, one of Cambodia’s most respected human rights defenders, passed away suddenly in Phnom Penh yesterday. He was 51.
A senior investigator at local NGO Adhoc, Soveth spent almost two decades at the forefront of investigative human rights work in the Kingdom.
“We are very sad. It’s International Human Rights Day and we have lost our human rights defender,” said Ee Sarom, executive director at urban rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT).
Soveth’s wife, Sopheap, said her husband had returned home from events held as part of the rights day complaining of chest pain. He passed away soon after.
“[Tuesday] evening, he was not feeling well and ate porridge, but today he ate nothing,” she said.
Tributes flowed in yesterday for a man known for being fearless in his fight for justice.
Soveth was remembered as a brave man who frequently spoke out against rights abuses and illegal activities, ranging from land grabbing and deforestation to torture and trafficking.
It was an unflinching approach, his friends and colleagues said, that attracted the wrath of authorities, but more than anything, earned Soveth a reputation as a strong voice for the downtrodden.
“Losing Chan Soveth is a great loss to our society; it will be difficult to find such a person like him again,” said Latt Ky, Adhoc’s chief land investigator. “He worked from hand to mouth. When he departed this life, he had nothing left.”
Adhoc president Thun Saray described Soveth as a “great human rights activist” who dared to speak out at significant risk to his own safety.
“It is a big loss for Adhoc, civil society and the Cambodian people,” he said.
Yi Soksan, senior investigator at Adhoc, said Soveth had been raised, along with his three sisters and one brother, by his aunt. He later became a soldier in Battambang, a period in which he was jailed in a “dark prison” for almost one year after two of his subordinates were accused of illegally selling weapons.
“After he was released, he asked permission to go home and abandoned the military. He worked as a teacher in 1993 and 1994,” Soksan said.
But it was through his rights work that Soveth would find his calling. He joined Adhoc in 1995 and became a familiar figure in local and international media, speaking out against injustices.
Soveth, however, was anything but an “armchair activist” and spent much of his time on the “front line” with the people, said Cambodian Center for Human Rights chairman Ou Virak.
“You need to have the passion to roll up your sleeves and go out to the field – Soveth did that,” he said. “He was one of the good guys.”
However, with such commitment came risks to his own freedom.
In 2012, Soveth was accused of assisting what the government called a “secessionist” movement in Kratie. Charges against him – which rights groups called “the decade’s most serious threat to human rights in Cambodia” – were eventually thrown out.
“I’m not involved in politics. They should respect humanitarian activities,” he said at the time.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator at rights group Licadho, said Soveth had never let threats of legal action or threats on his life deter him.
“It is a bravery that cannot be forgotten,” he said.
Soveth leaves behind three children, Sovisal, 16, Sovuthy, 14, and Solika, 8.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL