A United Nations’ rights envoy met with activists involved in a long-running dispute at a lake community in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh Tuesday as they marked the one-year anniversary of the jailing of one of their leaders.
Rhona Smith, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, met with the residents of the Boeung Kak Lake community as they gathered for a vigil honoring Tep Vanny, who was arrested on Aug. 15, 2016 and sentenced to two and a half years in prison in February.
Bov Sophea, one of the Boeung Kak activists, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the group was pleased Smith had made time to meet with them on the eighth day of her 10-day visit to investigate the rights situation in Cambodia, with a special emphasis on the rights of children—part of her focus on discrimination and marginalized groups.
“We told her about our concerns regarding Cambodia’s judicial system, which is used to persecute us,” she said.
“Several representatives of our committee, including a 77-year-old woman, have been charged. They can jail us anytime they want … We are double victims of land grabbing and eviction, and mistreatment by the authorities. We are very saddened by our very bad treatment by the courts.”
Bov Sophea expressed hope that Smith would communicate the concerns of the Boeung Kak Lake activists to the international community.
The rights envoy also met with Tep Vanny in prison Tuesday, before visiting the jailed activist’s 13-year-old daughter, Ou Kong Panha.
Smith’s visit to Boeung Kak Lake came a day after the activists sent the second of two petitions in a week to the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, asking for its help in obtaining the release of Tep Vanny, and on the same day the group sent a similar petition to eight foreign embassies in Cambodia.
The activists said they plan to deliver another petition on Tep Vanny’s behalf to several government institutions in coming days.
Tep Vanny came to prominence as an activist fighting the Boeung Kak land grab, when some 3,500 families were evicted from a neighborhood surrounding the lake. The lake was later filled with sand to make way for a development project with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (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.
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 Aug. 8, 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.
On Monday, a group of 64 domestic and international civil society organizations issued a statement calling Tep Vanny’s imprisonment “grossly unjust” and demanding that the government end its “harassment of Tep Vanny and other Boeung Kak Lake activists through arrests, prosecution and imprisonment.”
Reported by Vuthy Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.