Authorities in Cambodia on Tuesday charged four women with defamation and obstruction of public officials after briefly detaining them after of a clash with police over a controversial land development scheme in the capital.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court released four representatives of the city’s central Boeung Kak Lake community after one night in police detention where they were denied legal representation and medical care, according to one of the women.
The four activists—Tep Vanny, Bo Chhorvy, Heng Mom, and Kong Chantha—have all been forcefully evicted from their homes as a Chinese-Cambodian company, Shukaku Inc., fills the lake with sand in preparation for the construction of a luxury residential site.
One of the activists vowed after her release to continue protesting against the local government and Shukaku to demand her rights as a property owner.
"Normally, concerned citizens must speak out to release their anxiety," she told reporters in front of the court.
"We only expressed ourselves, but the court has charged us. How about the company that has pumped sand into our houses and the police who violently abused us? Didn’t they commit a crime?"
The women had gathered in front of city hall with other villagers from Boeung Kak Lake on Monday to protest the loss of their land to Shukaku after a group of land title officers visited Boeung Kak Lake to take measurements over the weekend.
But police broke the protest up, detaining the four. The clash left another four women injured.
Nearly 20,000 people have either been evicted from their homes or are at risk of losing them since Shukaku, which is owned by a politician from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, was granted a 99-year lease in the area in 2007.
Call to drop charges
Local and international rights groups have called on authorities to drop the charges against the activists.
Sam Zarifi, director of the London-based Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Program, urged the municipal government to stop targeting activists who are peacefully defending the rights of their communities.
"The politically-motivated charges against Tep Vanny and the other women, used in an attempt to silence legitimate protest, must be dropped. The authorities must immediately halt the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters,” Zarifi said.
"The authorities' decision to charge the four women reflects a worrying trend in Cambodia, where the space for legitimate public debate is narrowing," he said.
Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, said the government was wrong to have granted the concession to Shukaku.
“First of all, the lease is 99 years long and the government has failed to conduct evaluations to see if the development plan will affect the people,” he said.
“The biggest mistakes throughout the process were that the company destroyed people’s houses and assaulted women.”
Boeung Kak lake representatives have demanded that all residents whose homes had been demolished by the developer and local authorities be entitled to land within an area earmarked by Prime Minister Hun Sen in August.
According to Hun Sen’s decree, 12.44 hectares (31 acres) were to be set aside for 794 families who were facing eviction.
But local authorities say scores of families lack property titles recognized by the government and have excluded them from the land. Villagers contend that implementation of the decree has lacked transparency.
Cambodia’s land issue dates from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which banned private property and forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country.
This was followed by mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Housing Cambodia’s large, young, and overwhelmingly poor population has posed a major problem ever since.
An estimated 30,000 people a year in Cambodia are driven from farmland or urban areas to make way for real estate developments or mining and agricultural projects.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.