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Mt. Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella goes to bat for jailed Cambodian activist who spoke at the college

Sochua is a member of Cambodia’s Parliament and leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the main opposition party. The government is led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for almost 30 years.

On Tuesday in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, Sochua had led a rally of about 200 protesters calling for the reopening of Freedom Park — where public assembly was banned in January. She and two of her colleagues, Men Thravin and Keo Phirum, were arrested during the protest.

When Pasquerella heard the news, she acted quickly. On Wednesday, she sent a letter to Cambodian Ambassador Hem Heng, protesting Sochua’s arrest.

In her letter, she recalled Sochua’s recent visit to Mount Holyoke. In May, Sochua was among more than 80 speakers who took part in a Women in Public Service Project Institute sponsored by Mount Holyoke, Smith and Simmons colleges.

Pasquerella called the news of Sochua’s arrest “devastating.” “She is such a woman of courage,” she said Friday. “It was particularly saddening because we came to know her.”

The institute also included a student-directed performance of SEVEN at Smith College. The play depicts the stories of seven women leaders around the world, including Sochua’s work to end sex trafficking and genocide.

“People were very moved by her story and those of other women who overcame barriers to really transform their cultures around women’s rights,” Pasquerella said.

Sochua was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

Also in the letter, Pasquerella cited Sochua’s work “providing basic services and opportunities for women and men, preventing HIV/AIDs and domestic violence, and on opening the democratic process to all.”

“At Mount Holyoke,” she wrote, “we are deeply conscious and supportive of the transformative role that women leaders must play in bringing about gains for their fellow citizens.”

Five Colleges professor Jon Western, who was also among the speakers at the Women in Public Service Project Institute and who wrote about Sochua’s arrest on the academic blog “The Duck of Minerva,” said letter-writing campaigns can be an effective way to put pressure on oppressive regimes.

“One can never be sure what’s going to happen in situations like this, but the best we can do is report and monitor human rights violations and put as much pressure as you can on a government,” he said Friday. The U.S. Department of State and Human Rights Watch have also called for the release of Sochua and her colleagues.

Western noted the high level of international attention to Sochua’s case and said it is possible that the regime will respond to the growing pressure.

Pasquerella remains hopeful. She noted that support for Sochua’s release has been widespread on social media.

“I’m optimistic that we’ve gotten this much attention, and I think we will continue to as the story unfolds,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.

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