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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rights groups condemn decision to keep land activist Tep Vanny in prison

A group of protesters hold incense sticks during an impromptu cursing ceremony yesterday outside the Appeal Court, which upheld a 30-month sentence for land rights activist Tep Vanny’s alleged involvement in a 2013 protest that turned violent in Phnom Penh.
A group of protesters hold incense sticks during an impromptu cursing ceremony yesterday outside the Appeal Court, which upheld a 30-month sentence for land rights activist Tep Vanny’s alleged involvement in a 2013 protest that turned violent in Phnom Penh. Ananth Baliga

Rights groups condemn decision to keep land activist Tep Vanny in prison

In a decision roundly criticised by rights observers, the Appeal Court yesterday upheld a two-and-a-half-year sentence for Boeung Kak activist Tep Vanny for her alleged involvement in a 2013 protest outside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence in Phnom Penh that turned violent.

Presiding Judge Pol Sam Oeun said the court found no fault with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s decision to sentence the prominent activist to 30 months in prison.

“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.

Vanny was convicted last September for allegedly ordering an attack on around 200 Daun Penh security guards, police and Military Police personnel, as she and fellow activists attempted to deliver a petition to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s home near the Independence Monument.

The lake resident – one of the most prominent faces of the acrimonious and long-running land dispute between Boeung Kak residents, developers and City Hall – was sentenced to 30 months, fined 5 million riel ($1,240), and ordered to pay 4 million and 5 million riel in compensation, respectively, to plaintiffs Hao Hoeurn and Ouk Ratana, both of whom are Daun Penh security guards.

Vanny has denied instigating any violence, insisting the protesters were the victims. About 10 activists were injured as the security forces violently dispersed the crowd.

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Boeung Kak activist Tep Vanny is escorted by officials earlier this year in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Three Boeung Kak residents – Ngeth Khun, Kong Chantha and Bo Chhorvy – were in court as witnesses, and erupted upon hearing the verdict, with Vanny herself yelling at court officials in between tears.

“Unjust! Unjust! Put me in jail if you think this would bring benefit to the nation. You arrest female land [rights] victims in jail. Today, I am in jail; the next day, you would be in jail,” she yelled, as she was forcefully put into a prison van.

Upon receiving word of the verdict, around 50 supporters outside the court burst into tears and began chanting and yelling insults at the court, with some of them starting an impromptu “cursing ceremony” involving incense sticks and lotus stems. Lake resident Khun could be seen smashing coconuts and lotus flowers as she yelled “Second Pol Pot! Second Pol Pot!”

Vanny has been in jail since last August, when she was convicted and sentenced to six days in prison for “public insult” while conducting a cursing ceremony as part of the civil society-initiated “Black Monday” protests. On top of the case addressed in yesterday’s hearing, two others have been resurrected – one of which has not yet gone to trial, and another in which Vanny and three others have been sentenced to six months in prison for a similar protest outside City Hall.

Read more: Boeung Kak: A Disastrous Decade

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Boeung Kak activist Bo Chhorvy refuses to leave the Appeal Court premises yesterday in Phnom Penh. Ananth Baliga

Both plaintiffs skipped court throughout the trial, denying the defence the opportunity to cross-examine them.

Prosecutor Sar Yos Thavrak, however, insisted Vanny was in the wrong for having gone to the premier’s home in the first place. “You stormed into his house. This is your mistake,” he said during the first hearing.

Following yesterday’s verdict, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement asking for the quashing of charges against Vanny and her immediate release, and highlighted a lack of evidence and witnesses in the prosecution’s case.

“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 HRW. “This prosecution is intended to silence Tep Vanny and intimidate other Cambodian activists.”

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Boeung Kak protesters hold an impromptu cursing ceremony yesterday at the Appeal Court. Ananth Baliga

Rhona Smith, the UN special rapporteur on human rights to Cambodia – who is on a 10-day visit to the country – said the ruling was not “especially surprising” and that the judicial process needed to be strengthened to ensure rulings are based on evidence.

“I think with the court process as a whole, there are many issues in which clarity on evidentiary requirements could be helpful across a range of cases, and not just that one,” she said.

Standing outside the court, Licadho’s Am Sam Ath also questioned the evidence used to paint Vanny as the instigator, saying that if she had in fact given orders, then the people who followed them should be prosecuted as well.

Protestors outside the court at Vanny's appeal last month:

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