Chan Soveth, a senior investigator at local rights group Adhoc and longtime human rights advocate, died Wednesday afternoon after spending the morning taking part in celebrations to mark Human Rights Day. He was 51.
The well-known activist, who has often come under fire from the government over the course of his two-decade career with Adhoc, died in his sleep at about 2 p.m. after suffering a heart attack upon his return home from the festivities, according to his aunt, Hoeu Leanghorn.
Born in Kandal province’s Lvea Em district in 1963, Chan Soveth and his five siblings were orphaned when their mother died shortly after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, having lost their father during Pol Pot’s reign.
As a teenager, the future rights campaigner relocated to Phnom Penh to live with another aunt, Nith Simorn, and studied at Wat Koh High School in the center of the city as the new Vietnam-installed government began rebuilding Cambodia.
Ms. Simorn, now 70, said that shortly after her nephew finished secondary school, he asked her for money to buy corn with a friend and then disappeared for a decade.
“At that time, he asked me if he could go for a walk, and then he went to live at a camp on the Cambodian-Thai border with his friend, and when he came back, he was almost 30,” she said.
“He told me he went to live on the Cambodian-Thai border because he wanted to live in a third country,” she explained. “When he came back from the camp, he could speak both Thai and English, and he translated documents a lot.”
According to Ny Chakrya, the head of monitoring at Adhoc, Chan Soveth began working as a monitor and investigator at the rights group in 1996, three years after the U.N. oversaw the return of elections to Cambodia.
In his time at Adhoc, Chan Soveth clashed several times with the government, often being accused of vague crimes in the course of providing support to poor villagers caught in disputes with well-connected businessmen.
Most recently, authorities in Pursat province accused Chan Soveth last year of “incitement,” saying he was spreading disinformation among villagers locked in a land dispute with a company believed to be owned by logging tycoon Try Pheap.
The year prior, he was summoned to court in Phnom Penh on charges of aiding an unnamed perpetrator in an unidentified crime, a move that was condemned by international human rights groups as an act of harassment.
It later transpired that he stood accused of “aiding” villagers in a land dispute in Kratie province who were accused of launching a secessionist plot after police shot dead the 14-year-old daughter of one of the villagers.
Adhoc president Thun Saray paid tribute to Chan Soveth. “It’s a big loss for Adhoc, and not only for Adhoc, but for the civil society movement in Cambodia, and also for the poor and the powerless in our society,” Mr. Saray said.
“He had a higher commitment and motivation to human rights work, and also he was a very active, courageous [man] who dared to protect the victims of human rights violations and also dared to criticize the errors or mistakes by the government people.”
Chan Soveth is survived by his wife, By Sopheap, whom he wed in 1998, their two teenage sons and their young daughter.
(Additional reporting by Holly Robertson)
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Chan Soveth died in his sleep at about 1 p.m. He died at about 2 p.m.