People gather outside the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on August 8, 2017, holding signs of support for land rights activist, Tep Vanny. 

© 2017 Private

(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities should quash the conviction and release land rights activist Tep Vanny, who has been imprisoned for nearly a year for defending her community from unlawful evictions, Human Rights Watch said today.

On August 8, 2017, an Appeals Court in Phnom Penh rejected Tep Vanny's appeal of her conviction on February 23 for "intentional violence with aggravated circumstances." She was sentenced to 30 months in prison following a summary trial in which the prosecution failed to present any witnesses – preventing any possible cross examination by the defense. The Cambodian government routinely misuses the courts, which lack independence, to target members of the political opposition and civil society activists, Human Rights Watch said.

Cambodia’s international donors should be outraged by the government’s harassment of peaceful activists through the courts.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

"The case against Tep Vanny is a blatant misuse of prosecutorial power to punish her for her peaceful activism," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This prosecution is intended to silence Tep Vanny and intimidate other Cambodian activists."

The charges against Tep Vanny relate to her participation in a peaceful protest in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house in 2013, during which she and other activists called for the release of a detained fellow community member. She was found guilty under article 218 of the Cambodian Criminal Code for assaulting Hun Sen’s security guards. No credible evidence was presented during the trial to substantiate these charges. The court refused to hear testimony from witnesses supporting Tep Vanny’s account that she and other protesters did not commit any violence during the protest.

During the trial, para-police kicked, shoved, and dragged activists who had gathered outside the court, resulting in injuries to two activists and a pregnant woman. Video footage of the incident shows para-police chasing demonstrators into a neighboring mall, and guards cornering one protester and repeatedly punching and kicking him.

Tep Vanny is also being held on spurious charges of “public insult” and “death threats” brought against her and five other members of the Boeung Kak Lake community dating back to the “Black Monday” protests on behalf of detained activists in 2012.

Since August 15, 2016, she has been held at CC2 Prey Sar facility prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and has now served a total of 358 days in detention. 

Tep Vanny is one of Cambodia’s leading land rights activists. She has worked to combat unlawful evictions and corruption by mobilizing affected communities in the Boeung Kak Lake area of Phnom Penh, where more than 4,000 families have had to vacate their homes for a private development project. In 2013, she received a Vital Voices Global Leadership Award for her work on land rights.

Tep Vanny has been an important voice on behalf of fellow activists, and has 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.

Cambodian authorities should drop all politically motivated charges against Tep Vanny, quash her February conviction, and immediately release her, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also cease persecution of human rights defenders and others exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

“Cambodia’s international donors should be outraged by the government’s harassment of peaceful activists through the courts,” Robertson said. “Together, they should publicly call for an end to the politically motivated and unsubstantiated charges against Tep Vanny and other detained activists in Cambodia.”