When Meach Sovannara boarded a flight to Cambodia in 2015, his wife and three daughters knew there was a chance he might never return to their modest Long Beach home.
Jamie Meach was no stranger to her husband’s battles with the Cambodian government. It was Sovannara’s activism, after all, that forced the family to seek asylum in the United States more than a decade earlier. He had returned to Cambodia since then, but protests that followed a controversial national election had endangered Sovannara’s safety once more.
A dual citizen of the U.S. and Cambodia, Sovannara was charged with attempting to incite an insurrection in 2014 after delivering a speech at a protest in Phonm Penh, the country’s capital.
Sovannara returned to the U.S. after being released on bond, but with a court hearing looming, he had a choice to make: Live safely in exile in Long Beach, or risk imprisonment to continue the fight against a government that has been widely criticized for human rights violations.
Despite the risks, Jamie Meach and her husband knew he had to return home.
In July 2015, Sovannara and 10 others were convicted of various crimes connected to the protests after what human rights activists have called a “show trial.” Sovannara’s attorneys were not allowed to enter closing arguments, and justices deliberated for 15 minutes before returning with a conviction, according to Amnesty International. Although no evidence was presented at trial, Sovannara was sentenced to 20 years in Prey Sar prison, a hellish, overcrowded complex where family and friends fear he could be killed at any moment.
An appeal of Sovannara’s conviction was denied earlier this year. But friends and activists hope a federal lawsuit brought against the Cambodian government in Los Angeles and diplomatic pressures exerted in Washington will help secure his release.
But as those wheels turn slowly, Sovannara’s stand has left his family trapped in an international nightmare, one that has roiled Long Beach’s sprawling Cambodian refugee community and agitated lawmakers tasked with managing diplomatic relations between Washington and Phnom Penh.
As they hold out hope, some say Sovannara made peace with the potential consequences of his decision long before returning to his native land.
“Meach Sovannara already knows his fate,” said Bo K.S. Uce, a family friend and activist.
Huddled close with her daughters, Jamie Meach said she doesn’t regret her husband’s gamble.
The fight against Hun Sen, the former Khmer Rouge commander who has served as Cambodia’s prime minister for nearly 30 years and is considered a dictator by human rights advocates, was more important than their family’s needs.
“We’ve seen, both of us … Hun Sen’s violations of human rights, his oppressions of democracy, and everything like that,” she said through an interpreter. “So I had to, for my own self, I had to sacrifice in order for my husband to help liberate Cambodia.”
When the couple first met in 1994, they were schoolteachers in Cambodia’s Bonteay Meanchey Province, well off the radar of a national government that has routinely met dissent with brutal reprisals. They married five years later, Jamie Meach said. But as their bond grew, so did Sovannara’s desire to help expose government abuses, past and present.
Sovannara had worked as a journalist before he became a teacher, and he returned to the field as a reporter and host with Radio Free Asia shortly after the couple wed, Jamie Meach said. For the next several years, Sovannara would publish stories that were highly critical of the government, taking specific aim at misuse of funds and allegations of election rigging by the Cambodian People’s Party, the political powerhouse that has controlled Cambodia for decades, Jamie Meach said.
Sometime in 2003, Sovannara became embroiled in an argument with Sar Kheng, a former Khmer Rouge commander and congressman who is now the Cambodian minister of the interior, and Jamie Meach immediately grew concerned. Reporters who criticize the government often face arrest, or worse.
In Sovannara’s case, it was the latter. The death threats began within days, Jamie Meach said. After men on motorcycles came to their home and tried to break in, the coupledecided to flee to Long Beach.
“We had to come as tourists first, then apply for asylum,” she said. “Otherwise they would have killed us.”
The family arrived in Long Beach in 2003, and they were granted asylum in 2004, Jamie Meach said.
For the next nine years, Sovannara largely remained in Long Beach, working with Jamie Meach to publish a Khmer-language newspaper. He would occasionally travel back to Cambodia to visit his mother, never explaining how he was able to remain safe, she said.
Nine years would pass before Sovannara could openly return to his native land. With the Cambodian government under increasing international pressure to hold fair elections, Sovannara became the media director for the insurgent Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2013 and began making trips to Phnom Penh.
After closer-than-expected parliamentary elections — which many Cambodians believed had been stolen by Hun Sen— a popular uprising was met with brutal police crackdowns.
“The 2013 election was a wake-up call for the authorities who thought they had everything under control,” said Sophal Ear, a professor at Occidental College and expert on Cambodian politics.
Anti-government protests lasted for months in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, and violent clashes with national police led to the park’s closure. Sovannara participated in a July 2014 rally calling for the park to be reopened. During that speech, he criticized Hun Sen’s administration for ceding land to Vietnam in a border dispute, Jamie Meach said.
Those remarks kick started the dubious criminal proceedings that led to Sovannara’s imprisonment. Now, with almost no way to communicate with him, Sovannara’s family waits in Long Beach, fearful that Prey Sar prison may become his tomb.
Experts on Cambodian politics describe the facility as an overcrowded, brutal lockup that is a haven for disease. Sovannara could be killed in a staged fight, poisoned at mealtime or beaten by guards at the government’s behest, his family and activists contend.
In September, Sovannara, who has been in poor health due to a severe head injury suffered in a 2015 car accident, experienced a medical emergency and had to be rushed to a Phnom Penh hospital.
The news set off a series of panicked phone calls back in Long Beach. Prisoners taken to that hospital rarely leave alive, said Morton Sklar, an attorney with Human Rights Watch who is representing the Sovannara family. Sklar believes the transfer was an intimidation tactic, noting that Sovannara was hospitalized just days after a federal judge in Los Angeles refused to toss the family’s federal lawsuit against the Cambodian government.
Asked how Sovannara’s speech could result in such a stiff prison sentence, government spokesman Phay Siphan simply said, “It is illegal to protest,” when contacted by The Times. He referred all further questions to the Justice Ministry. Siphan did not respond to a list of questions e-mailed from The Times.
Whether the transfer was meant to scare his loved ones, Sovanarra’s medical situation is dire, Jamie Meach said. Based on what little information she can gather from relatives living in Cambodia, she said her husband is suffering from chronic migraines, high blood pressure, jaundice and diarrhea inside Prey Sar. An appeal for his release based on his medical condition was rejected in October, she said.
Sovannara’s relatives and activists believe a combination of diplomatic and legal pressures could lead to his release, and Sklar said the federal lawsuit against the Cambodian government — specifically Sen’s oldest son, Hun Manet — might prove key.
While foreign governments are normally immune to legal action in U.S. courts, Sklar believes Sovannara’s case represents an exemption under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, passed in the wake of the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and aimed at helping victims of state terrorist acts abroad recoup financial damages. In the current suit, Sklar has argued that Sovannara’s unlawful imprisonment by the Cambodian government has caused harm to his wife and children, who are U.S. citizens.
Still, Sklar acknowledges that it may take a “perfect storm” of pressures from the lawsuit and American lawmakers to set Sovannara free. Other experts warn there is little anyone in Washington can do about his imprisonment.
Many U.S. lawmakers are fiercely opposed to Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule, said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. But with Cambodia now relying more heavily on China for aid, the U.S. is limited in the kind of financial leverage it can exert, he said.
State Department officials might also be reluctant to intervene because Sovannara is a dual citizen, said Ear, the Occidental College professor.
“The U.S., I feel, sees such individuals as having mixed loyalties or having signed up for this by way of involvement in Cambodian politics,” he said.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official wasn’t authorized to discuss Sovanarra’s case, told The Times that consular officers from the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh have had regular visits with Sovannara. Their last known contact with him was on Oct. 21, according to the official, who said embassy officials “regularly raise his and similar cases in our high-level engagement with senior officials from the Government of Cambodia.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cambodia earlier this year and raised concerns about human rights abuses during a trip that otherwise focused on economic ties between the U.S. and Cambodia, according to media reports. A spokesman for the State Department would not say whether Kerry discussed Sovanarra’s case with Hun Sen.
U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who sits on the House Foreign Affairs committee, has also criticized the Cambodian government for its treatment of Sovannara and warned that the unfair imprisonment of a U.S. citizen could negatively impact diplomatic relations between the two countries.
“We’ve gone through this trying to get people out of Vietnam in the same way, and I think we need to push our embassy to do as much as possible,” he said. “This is all about the future relationship between Cambodia and the U.S..”
Lowenthal has asked the State Department to monitor the status of Sovannara’s appeal. He has also repeatedly pushed to make free and fair elections a condition of any financial aid offered to Phnom Penh by lawmakers.
If Sovannara’s case has caused irritation in Washington, it has infuriated Long Beach’s large Cambodian refugee community. Hundreds of Cambodia Town residents attended a rally at an area church this summer, with many calling for Sovannara’s release as pictures of him in an orange prison jumpsuit dotted the room. When Hun Manet visited Long Beach on a diplomatic mission earlier this year, his trip was marred by a violent clash connected to Sovannara’s case.
Hun Manet, a high-ranking commander in the Cambodian military, came to the U.S. in an attempt to mend fences with large Cambodian communities in Long Beach and Lowell, Mass. His trip was met with large-scale protests in both cities, and a private investigator who attempted to serve him with the lawsuit brought by Sovannara’s family said he was attacked by the general’s guards on April 9. Several local activists claim the assailant or assailants were members of Hun Manet’s private guard.
Long Beach police are investigating the attack, but would not comment on a possible suspect. Multiple calls to the Cambodian Consulate in Long Beach were not returned.
A federal judge in Los Angeles allowed the suit to continue, and the Cambodian government has served notice that it will not defend the case, according to Sklar. A default judgment against Hun Manet is likely, Sklar said.
The same judge also issued an order allowing Sklar to submit written questions to Hun Manet about myriad human rights abuses committed under his father’s regime. Hun Manet answered those, according to Sklar, though the documents are not yet public.
“Hun Manet and the government of Cambodia are going to be in the position of being forced to disclose a lot of information that will be greatly embarrassing to them,” said Sklar, who hopes the threat of that discovery could help leverage Sovannara’s release.
In Long Beach, activists like Uce remain hopeful, but they are also realistic about the odds Sovannara faces. But Uce believes Hun Sen has made one critical mistake: The longer he holds Sovannara prisoner, the more powerful his story becomes.
“Everybody loves life,” Uce said. “But sometimes the sacrifice has meaning.”
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report from Washington D.C.
Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.