Rights Groups Demand Release of Cambodian Activist Tep Vanny on Eve of Second Year in Prison

Human Rights Watch calls her conviction ‘politically motivated’ and based on ‘fabricated’ charges.

Tep Vanny (C) is escorted by prison guards at the appeal court in Phnom Penh, Feb, 15, 2017.

Cambodian authorities should overturn the “politically motivated” conviction of prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny and “unconditionally release her,” New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Tuesday, on the eve of the two-year anniversary of her arrest.

Tep Vanny, 38, was arrested on Aug. 15, 2016 after participating in a demonstration, handed six days in prison for “insulting a public official” and, instead of being released when the sentence was served, charged with “aggravated intentional violence” for a protest she held more than three years earlier in front of the home of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

On Feb. 23, 2017, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Tep Vanny of assaulting two security officers during the protest at Hun Sen’s home, sentencing her to 30 months in prison and 9 million riels (U.S. $2,250) in compensation to the officers.

The Phnom Penh Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court upheld the sentence in August 2017 and in February this year, respectively.

On Tuesday, HRW called the charges on which she was convicted “baseless” and part of a bid to “silence her peaceful activism” in fighting a land grab at Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake, where some 3,500 families were evicted from a surrounding neighborhood.

“Tep Vanny has now spent two years behind bars on fabricated charges and should be released immediately,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director.

“This is just one of many outrageous cases in which the authorities have misused Cambodia’s justice system to harass and imprison peaceful land rights activists.”

HRW has dismissed the criminal trials against Tep Vanny, saying the charges lacked factual basis and were “apparently fabricated.”

Trial judges did not require the prosecution to present evidence to substantiate the charges against her, disallowed testimony from defense witnesses, and rushed proceedings to prevent cross-examination of prosecution evidence, according to the group.

HRW noted that authorities have also sentenced Tep Vanny to six months in prison for taking part in a 2011 protest, but have yet to order her to serve the sentence.

The rights group said Tuesday that the prosecution of Tep Vanny and other activists violates their rights to the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as their right to a fair trial, protected under Cambodia’s international commitments and the country’s constitution.

“Tep Vanny’s plight should be at the center of demands by foreign governments and donors to the Cambodian authorities to immediately release all political prisoners,” Robertson said.

“The government’s treatment of Tep Vanny and other detained activists is a critical indicator of its engagement with the international community after the widely derided July elections.”

Other calls for release

Head human rights investigator Am Sam Ath of the Cambodia-based rights group LICADHO told RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday that after unjustly spending two years in prison, Tep Vanny should be set free.

“She worked to prevent land grab and human rights abuses, so it is time to stop painting her as a criminal,” he said.

“Instead of prosecuting activists, the authorities should work to promote and protect human rights. Additionally, they should be working to improve law enforcement and justice in the country.”

Chan Puthisak, an activist representing the Boeung Kak Lake community, told RFA that Tep Vanny’s supporters plan to hold a gathering on Wednesday to honor her advocacy on the second anniversary of her imprisonment.

“We will put up posters with pictures of Tep Vanny and light candles spelling out her name, with Buddhist monks blessing her in a ceremony that will include speeches and songs about her work,” he said.

“We plan to call for Tep Vanny’s release, while letting the people of Cambodia and the international community know that she has been unjustly imprisoned.”

Tep Vanny was awarded the 2013 Vital Voices Global Leadership Award for her work campaigning on behalf of the community evicted from Boeung Kak Lake, which was later filled with sand to make way for a development project with ties to Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The CPP has claimed it won some 77 percent of the vote and likely secured all 125 parliamentary seats in play in Cambodia’s July 29 general election, which was widely dismissed as unfree and unfair, following the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November.

While ballots are still being counted, with an official announcement expected on Wednesday, unconfirmed preliminary results indicate a strong CPP showing, ensuring long-ruling strongman Hun Sen will add another five-year term to his 33 years in office.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.