The lawyer spearheading a case to have Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, and the Cambodian government tried in the U.S. for wrongful imprisonment said on Tuesday that a subpoena had been officially served, and claimed the case could move forward within a month.
Meach Sovannara, a CNRP official and U.S. citizen, was jailed last year for insurrection due to his presence at a 2014 protest that devolved into a brawl. He is suing Lieutenant General Manet and the government for damages resulting from “torture through arbitrary, extra-legal and long-term detention.”
Speaking by telephone from Los Angeles, where Mr. Sovannara’s family lives and where the case was filed in a U.S. federal court on Friday, attorney Morton Sklar said a process server named Paul Hayes delivered a subpoena to Lt. Gen. Manet on Saturday.
Lt. Gen. Manet is traveling in the U.S. to meet Cambodian communities there and was hosting a dinner at the La Lune restaurant in Long Beach on Saturday night when a man was allegedly assaulted by his bodyguards, requiring local police to intervene.
Mr. Sklar said the man was Mr. Hayes. Online videos show Long Beach police spraying tear gas at Lt. Gen. Manet’s bodyguards and protesters after Mr. Hayes was allegedly assaulted by the bodyguards while serving him with the subpoena.
“I went to see him today,” Mr. Sklar said, explaining that Mr. Hayes would press charges.
“He’s in the Intensive Care Unit, as very significant damage was done in the assault. He’s being carefully monitored because of damage that took place to his spine and head.”
“But I should point out that this occurred when he was just a few feet away from Hun Manet, and he told me this morning he had outstretched his left arm to serve Hun Manet with the papers for the court case.”
“He called out Hun Manet’s name, and then the bodyguard pulled him very violently to the ground. But the service-of-process in U.S. law, which requires you to be within 10 feet of the defendant, took place.”
Mr. Sklar, who is basing his case on an exception in the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act for wrongful acts that cause harm to U.S. citizens, said Lt. Gen. Manet had until May 9 to indicate to the California district court whether he planned to defend himself.
“Hun Manet has to answer the summons; that is, he has to provide the court with a written reply against the accusations leveled against him. He has to say in general terms what his response will be.”
If there was no reply to the subpoena, Mr. Sklar said, things could go down the path they did when Mr. Hun Sen was sued in a New York district court in 2005 for involvement in a 1997 grenade attack on an opposition protest that injured U.S. citizen Ron Abney, who was also represented by Mr. Sklar.
“In that case, what happened was Hun Sen did not respond within 30 days and as a result an ‘entry of default’ was made,” Mr. Sklar said, referring to a request to issue a decision against an unresponsive defendant.
“The judge was about to issue a default judgment against Hun Sen, and at that point he hired a major law firm in New York City to defend him and get the entry of default overturned,” he said.
“In his case, the defense was on the grounds of head-of-state immunity. We were arguing that point in court when Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy entered into a personal settlement that ended that case.”
Mr. Abney ultimately dropped the suit as part of a deal allowing a self-exiled Mr. Rainsy to be granted a pardon for a criminal conviction and to return to Cambodia.
Mr. Sklar said he believed his latest suit was valid due to an exception contained within the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
“The provision says that where a foreign government has committed a tort in a foreign country that has impacts in the U.S. that act constitutes an exception to the principle of foreign sovereign immunities and allows the government to be sued,” he said.
Mr. Sklar said that Mr. Sovannara’s 20-year jail sentence had harmed him in several ways.
“One is that financially, his family has been very financially damaged due to his long term imprisonment on an arbitrary basis—they have lost their house,” he said. “There has been serious psychological damage to his family.”
Lt. Gen. Manet did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. However, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Mr. Sklar was inventing a convoluted case in order to make money.
“The lawyer is just making a lot of stories in order to push this through the media in order to collect money from Cambodian-Americans. Think about jurisdiction. We have our own jurisdiction, and it is different to the jurisdiction of the U.S.,” Mr. Siphan said.
“Hun Manet also does not have anything to do with Meach Sovannara, and they have just invented this issue because he is over there. Secondly, I do not believe that the U.S. will let anything happen to foreign high-ranking officials like Hun Manet.”
Lt. Gen. Manet has indeed never before been accused of involvement in Mr. Sovannara’s jailing, and Mr. Sklar’s case offers no evidence other than what it describes as his plum position—due to his connection to his father—amid corruption in the security forces.
Yet it is not only Lt. Gen. Manet who stands accused as a defendant in the court filing, but also the Cambodian government.
Mr. Sklar said he was in the process of summoning the government to appear, working through the U.S. Department of State.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. Mr. Siphan, the government spokesman, said he was not worried about the government being sued.
“He’s trying to defame us, saying things like Hun Manet is a terrorist. But Hun Manet was educated at West Point,” he said. “This is baseless. It will go nowhere.”
The Long Beach Police Department did not respond to a request for comment about whether it was investigating the claims that Lt. Gen. Manet’s bodyguards assaults Mr. Hayes, the process server.