Jailed activist Tep Vanny yesterday maintained her innocence and called on the judge to overturn her conviction in a hearing at the Appeal Court yesterday, as about 80 protesters demonstrated for her release outside.
“Free Tep Vanny! Free Tep Vanny!” chanted two groups of mostly women, flanking the entrance gates of the court and holding up banners and lotus flowers – a symbol of peace.
In February, Vanny was sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment and ordered to pay a total of about $3,342 in compensation and fines for charges of violence with aggravating circumstances after allegedly instigating protesters to injure two security guards with shoes, megaphones and water bottles in March 2013.
She has now been imprisoned for almost a year.
She and about 60 others tried to submit a petition to Prime Minister Hun Sen that day, asking for the release of fellow Boeung Kak activist Yorm Bopha, but were confronted by about 200 police, Military Police and Daun Penh guards, who injured about 10 protesters while violently dispersing the group.
“I am innocent,” Vanny said yesterday. “They said we hit them. But if we hit them, they would not allow us to live until today.”
The court yesterday heard defence witnesses Ngeth Khun, Kong Chantha and Bo Chorvy, who all said they had not seen Vanny hit anyone, nor had they heard her order anyone to do so.
The complainants in the case, Hao Hoeurn and Ouk Ratana, were absent again. Vanny agreed to continue without them, but later criticised their absence.
“With just a single paper, they put me in jail, separated me from my kids and family,” she said. “They destroyed my happiness.”
Prosecutor Sar Yos Thavrak, however, said she should not have gone to the premier’s house in the first place. “You stormed into his house. This is your mistake. The fact is that if they let you go to the house, you would violate the law,” he said.
But Vanny hit back defiantly, saying sarcastically that she was unaware of a law “banning petitions to the prime minister’s house”.
“If Samdech [Hun Sen] said, ‘Don’t come to me if you have a problem,’ then I would swear not to come to his house. But he said he serves the people,” she said.
A verdict is expected on August 8.
Am Sam Ath, of rights group Licadho, also criticised the complainants’ absence after the hearing as it robbed the defence of the opportunity to cross-examine them. “Justice [means that] all relevant parties have to be present in the court,” he said.
On Wednesday, civil society organisations called on the court to overturn Vanny’s conviction because of a lack of evidence, in a statement that also criticised repressive tactics both in and outside the courthouse. “Community members outside the court faced unprovoked violence from para-police and, following delivery of the verdict, riot police entered the court room and physically restrained a number of defence witnesses,” they write in reference to a February 23 hearing.
Cambodian Centre for Human Rights Executive Director Chak Sopheap yesterday wrote in an email that Vanny’s conviction “followed a trial riddled with procedural irregularities”.
And while she said today’s hearing “merely repeated these deficiencies”, she remained hopeful the conviction would be overturned. “If the Cambodian people are to have faith in the fairness and integrity of their court system and judiciary, then they need to be able to see that justice is being done,” she said.
Equitable Cambodia Director Eang Vuthy echoed this assessment, and said he remained hopeful for the verdict. “If they listen carefully, there might be a chance that she would be released,” he said.
But Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy-Director Phil Robertson said the verdict depended on political will, not on the facts of the case. “In political cases like Tep Vanny’s, the Cambodian courts have shown time and time again that the evidence presented is irrelevant. If they are ordered by the government to convict, they will fit the ‘facts’ to the predetermined outcome,” he said.
“Once again, a courageous activist’s fate is tied to larger issues and the willingness of the [Cambodian People’s Party] to abuse rights indiscriminately in its pursuit of continued power.”