A senior Ministry of Justice official has refuted a recent claim by Choung Choungy – the defence lawyer of outspoken Cambodian-American political activist Seng Theary – that the US and local civil society organisations, aided by political negotiations, could help secure her freedom.

Choungy made the claim following a September 1 decision by the Court of Appeal to deny bail to her, with the case now referred to the Supreme Court.

“My client is an American citizen. Thus, the US should be able to assist her. Since she was detained, I have been in constant contact with a team from the embassy. I would also like to see more advocacy by local civil society representatives,” he said on September 11.

Hun Vannak, a member of the youth group Khmer Thavrak which has been active in demanding Theary’s release, claimed that authorities in Preah Vihear province had erected a barrier to stop them and the “Friday Women” protesters from flying balloons outside the provincial prison, where she is held after being found guilty of “plotting” and “incitement to foment serious chaos in society”.

“Even though our activities are on a very small scale, I believe that they will attract the attention of the public. It is better that we conduct even a small campaign than do nothing at all,” he said.

On 14 June, the US Department of State called for Theary’s release, considering her charges and detention a violation of Cambodia’s liberal, multi-party democracy. It said all Cambodians should be able to exercise their right to freedom of expression, peaceful gathering and the right to choose their leaders.

Chin Malin, spokesman for the justice ministry, emphasised that the issue of nationality cannot be used in exchange for the release of a convicted prisoner.

“Theary’s problem is a legal one. Whether she is an activist or a foreign national is irrelevant. As long as a crime is committed in Cambodia, it will be treated the same way under the Cambodian law. Therefore, if any interested party – be it an NGO or the US government – wants to involve itself, it must do so through the Cambodian judicial system,” he said.

Choungy said his client remained healthy and committed to advocating for freedom and democracy in Cambodia.

Theary was arrested in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and immediately taken to Prey Sar Prison on June 14 after being sentenced to six years in prison for conspiracy to plotting, in relations to the planned return of Sam Rainsy, the self-exiled former president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

She was transferred to Preah Vihear prison on June 15 due to “security concerns”.