UPDATED at 10:30 A.M. on 2017-08-09
A court in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Tuesday rejected an appeal by land activist and rights campaigner Tep Vanny of her conviction on charges of “aggravated intentional violence,” drawing condemnation from rights groups who demanded she be freed.
On Feb. 23, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Tep Vanny to two years and six months in prison on charges of “aggravated intentional violence” in connection with a 2013 protest she held in front of Hun Sen’s home that ended in violence.
While the protest occurred in 2013, the court prosecutor reactivated the case and charged Tep Vanny in August last year after she was arrested for participating in another demonstration.
On Tuesday, Cambodia’s Appeals Court upheld the Municipal Court’s ruling, which was issued following a trial in which the prosecution failed to produce any witnesses—preventing cross-examination by the defense—and which is widely seen as politically motivated.
Defense witnesses maintain that security forces launched an attack against Tep Vanny’s group in 2013, leaving some protesters wounded, knocked unconscious, or with lost teeth, while others suffered broken arms. Tep Vanny was also injured in the confrontation.
Around 50 people affected by forced eviction had gathered outside the courthouse ahead of the decision, calling for Tep Vanny’s release.
The Phnom Penh Post quoted Presiding Judge Pol Sam Oeun as saying that he found no fault in the lower court’s decision.
“The council sees that there was violence that happened and complied with the charge of ‘violence with aggravating circumstances,’ and that decision of the municipal court was correct,” he said, referring to the three-judge panel.
As she was led from the court, Tep Vanny condemned the decision as “unjust,” according to the Post.
“Put me in jail if you think this would bring benefit to the nation … Today, I am in jail, but tomorrow it will be your turn,” she yelled, as she was shoved into a prison van.
After the Appeals Court ruled, Kong Chantha from Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake community told RFA’s Khmer Service that Cambodia’s judiciary caters to the whims of the wealthy and politically powerful.
“The courts lack professionalism and court officials are operated by remote control,” she said.
“No witness was heard [in her February trial].”
The term “remote-control court” is regularly used by the public to refer to what they say are biased courts operated by those in power.
Rights groups react
The ruling was met with frustration from Soeng Senkarona, a senior investigator with local rights group ADHOC, who said he was “saddened” that the Appeals Court sided with the original verdict without providing any evidence to support its decision.
“I consider the Appeal Court’s decision unfair,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
In a statement, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Cambodia to release Tep Vanny, who has been in the capital’s Prey Sar Prison since Aug. 15, 2016, and slammed the government, which it said “routinely misuses the courts … to target members of the political opposition and civil society activists.
“The case against Tep Vanny is a blatant misuse of prosecutorial power to punish her for her peaceful activism,” said Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director.
“This prosecution is intended to silence Tep Vanny and intimidate other Cambodian activists.”
Robertson also urged Cambodia’s international donors to pressure the government to end “the politically motivated and unsubstantiated charges” against Tep Vanny and other detained activists.
Tep Vanny came to prominence as an activist fighting the Boeung Kak Lake land grab, when some 3,500 families were evicted from a neighborhood surrounding the urban lake in Phnom Penh. The lake was later filled with sand to make way for a development project with close ties to Hun Sen and the CPP.
She has also been active in urging an independent investigation into the July 10, 2016 shooting death of Kem Ley, a popular social commentator and frequent government critic.
Concerns over rights
Tep Vanny’s appeal verdict came as Rhona Smith, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia met with Keo Remy, the head of the government-run Cambodian Human Rights Committee, in the capital as she began an 10-day visit to Cambodia.
Following their discussion, Keo Remy told reporters that he acknowledged Smith’s concerns over the human rights situation in Cambodia, referring specifically to comments made recently by Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth, who threatened to beat anyone that protests the results of general elections set for July next year with bamboo poles.
“The most important thing to remember is that his remarks are not threats—they are just part of a message to educate people on the legal grounds [of the government’s potential reaction to protests],” he said.
“Such remarks may raise some concerns regarding human rights. However, the minister is a gentle person and people shouldn’t be intimidated by his words.”
Speaking at a promotion ceremony in the capital last week, Vong Sauth slammed what he called a bid by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to “poison” society and undermine Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to local media reports.
“The opposition says that the CPP, and especially Hun Sen, just does whatever he wants to do,” the Phnom Penh Post quoted Vong Sauth as saying, before proceeding to suggest that doing so is the prime minister’s right.
“He does whatever he wants to do—in compliance with the law, and the law gives him that power. And everyone who breaks the law will be arrested and put in prison.”
Smith told reporters after her meeting with Keo Remy that she had specifically brought up Vong Sauth’s comments during their discussion on Tuesday, adding that the rights committee chairman had agreed the statement "wasn't helpful before the  elections."
Smith’s visit, which was organized by the U.N.’s local human rights office, will help her take the pulse of the human rights situation in Cambodia, with a special emphasis on the rights of children—part of her focus on discrimination and marginalized groups.
She is also set to meet with Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana on Thursday, a ministry spokesman told the Cambodia Daily.
Reported by Vuthy Tha and Maly Leng for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Smith had not raised the issue of Vong Sauth's comments during her meeting with Keo Remy.