Former Prime Minister Says US Blacklisted Him

Former Prime Minister Pen Sovann claimed Monday that he has been barred from entering the U.S. because of an assistant who overstayed his U.S. visa more than a decade ago, and paid a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh in an effort to remedy the situation.

His announcement followed reports that Mr. Sovann, who is now an opposition CNRP lawmaker, had been blacklisted by the U.S. for human trafficking. The claims first appeared Friday in an online post by the Khmer People Power Movement, a dissident Cambodian-American group.

The post, which also claimed that former Sam Rainsy Party Senator Thach Setha was on the trafficking blacklist, was then shared on Facebook by Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers.

On Monday, Mr. Sovann said the claims of a travel ban were true. He said he learned of the ban about a year ago and that it stemmed from a trip he made to the U.S. with an assistant in 2001.

“I was informed by officials at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh that they would not issue me a visa to go to the U.S. because I brought a person there and that person has not yet returned,” he said.

Mr. Sovann said he made the 2001 trip—as then-president of the tiny Cambodian National Sustaining Party—with Seng Vanna, his assistant at the time, and that Mr. Vanna insisted on staying behind in the U.S. for emergency medical treatment.

“My assistant at the time told me that he was very sick and could not walk properly, so he couldn’t come back on schedule,” he said. “But it was not human trafficking as some people claim.”

Mr. Sovann said his former assistant finally returned to Cambodia about two months ago—more than 13 years after he left the country.

“The officials at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh told me that they would give me a visa to travel to the U.S. whenever my former assistant, who escaped and stayed in the U.S. past his visa, returned home,” he said. “Now he’s back.”

The former prime minister said he went to the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh on Monday to try to get off the blacklist, but was told he needed to make an appointment. He said he would return later to settle the matter.

Mr. Vanna said Monday he was indeed back in Cambodia and had returned roughly two months ago.

He said he overstayed his visa in 2001 to receive treatment for a kidney stone and continued to live in the U.S. after marrying a Cambodian-American, but never applied for citizenship.

“After we arrived in the U.S., I felt very sick with pain in my kidney,” he said. “It was the symptom of a kidney stone, so I stayed in the U.S. past my visa to get treatment…. It had nothing to do with Pen Sovann and it’s not true that he trafficked me.”

Mr. Setha, the former senator, denied the trafficking claims and said he was never informed of a U.S. travel ban, either.

“I have nothing to say to defend myself against what I haven’t done,” he said. “If I had done such a thing, the Cambodian government would not let me be free. If it were true, I should have been put on trial.”

Mr. Setha said he last visited the U.S. in 2005.

The U.S. Embassy would neither confirm nor deny placing a travel ban on either man.

“We are unable to provide details of individual visa cases as the records are confidential under U.S. law,” embassy spokesman Jay Raman said in an email. “If and when there is evidence indicating that an individual is inadmissible to the United States or ineligible for a visa, the State Department would take appropriate action.”

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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