Cambodia's Supreme Court Rejects Appeal by Jailed Land-Rights Activist

Tep Vanny was convicted of assaulting security officers during a 2013 protest outside the home of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Tep Vanny is shown in a holding cell at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Jan. 18, 2017.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court today upheld the 30-month sentence imposed last year by a lower court on prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny, sending her back to prison to serve out her term in a case widely seen as politically motivated.

The court’s ruling confirms the sentence handed down on Feb. 23, 2017 by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, which convicted Tep Vanny of assaulting security officers during a protest she held four years before in front of the home of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The March 2013 protest ended in violence, with witnesses later saying that security forces attacked Tep Vanny’s group, leaving protesters wounded or knocked unconscious, and Tep Vanny herself injured and accused of assault.

In August 2016, and after more than a three-year delay, court prosecutors charged Tep Vanny with “aggravated intentional violence” in the case following her arrest for participating in another demonstration.

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, defense attorney  Sarm Sokunthea rejected the Supreme Court’s decision, calling it “unfair and unjust” and saying the conviction had been based only the findings of a police report.

Am Sam Arth, a human rights investigator for the Cambodia-based rights group Licadho, meanwhile challenged police assertions that Tep Vanny had attacked them during the protest outside Hun Sen’s home in 2013.

“She has such a small body. How could she have beaten any of them up?” he asked.

Land grab

Tep Vanny first came to prominence as an activist fighting a land grab at Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake, where some 3,500 families were evicted from a surrounding neighborhood.

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 was later active in urging an independent investigation into the July 10, 2016 shooting death of Kem Ley, a popular social commentator and frequent government critic who was killed shortly after appearing on an RFA talk show to discuss a Global Witness report detailing the personal wealth of members of Hun Sen’s family.

Reacting on Wednesday to the news that Tep Vanny’s sentence had been upheld, rights group Amnesty International slammed the court’s decision, saying that criminal proceedings against Tep Vanny have been “deeply flawed from the start.”

“With today’s ruling, Cambodia’s judiciary has once again failed to prove that it can act independently, choosing to do the government’s bidding instead,” Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia and the Pacific Director James Gomez said in a Feb. 7 statement.

“Tep Vanny is a brave social activist who has done nothing but peacefully stand up for her community,” Gomez said.

“She should be released immediately and unconditionally and not be forced to spend two and a half years in jail.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Richard Finney.