Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rights warrior passes, age 51

Rights warrior passes, age 51

Adhoc senior investigator Chan Soveth
Adhoc senior investigator Chan Soveth is greeted by supporters at Phnom Penh court in 2012. Heng Chivoan

Rights warrior passes, age 51

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

An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Chan Soveth's age as 47. That number was obtained from his employer, rights group Adhoc. His family has subsequently said his actual age was 51. We regret any confusion this may have caused.

MOST VIEWED

  • US names new ambassador to Cambodia

    US President Donald Trump on Friday appointed W Patrick Murphy as the new US Ambassador to Cambodia, replacing incumbent William A Heidt. A press release posted on the White House’s website said nominee W Patrick Murphy is currently acting principal deputy assistant secretary at

  • Kingdom is at a crossroads between East, West after poll

    It was dubbed a success by caretaker prime minister Hun Sen after the electoral victory of his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which is poised to take all seats in the National Assembly. But the July 29 national election has not been positively looked at by

  • Chinese influence to sweep Kingdom?

    Growing Cambodia-China ties have seen the latter’s influence sweep across the Kingdom through increased investments and tourism. The Asian giant has become the leading source of foreign funds in Cambodia, fuelling the construction sector with huge casino and hotel projects. Much of the growth

  • Final poll results confirm first single-party Assembly

    IN an unprecedented situation in Cambodian politics, the official results of the July 29 national elections have declared that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will take all 125 seats in the National Assembly on the back of it receiving 76 per cent of the votes. The National