Demand the release of the Cambodian women's human rights defender & activist Tep Vanny!
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In February 2007 the Municipality of Phnom Penh entered into a 99-year lease agreement for US$79 million for 133 hectares, including Boeung Kak lake and surrounding land, with a private developer, Shukaku Inc. On 26 August 2008 the company began filling the lake, which immediately worsened flooding and caused the destruction of some of the houses. Ultimately, the lake was completely filled in, and thousands of families were evicted from the land - many of them forcefully after refusing the non-negotiable compensation or relocation to the outskirts of Phnom Penh that was on offer.
In response to the forced evictions, the Beoung Kak community organised themselves to resist the eviction and to seek proper redress for the loss of their homes, land and livelihoods.
Tep Vanny and the women from the Beoung Kak community were at the forefront of this campaign and emerged as effective community leaders and human rights advocates. In the process of legitimately protesting their rights as laid down in the Cambodian Constitution and in the international treaties that Cambodia is a party to - the women have been consistently subjected to threats and intimidation from the government, with the frequent use of force and the law against them; and ultimately they have been arrested and imprisoned on multiple occasions.
Since the last election in 2013, the space for civil society in Cambodia to exercise their human rights has been rapidly shrinking. In the last few months a number of human rights defenders have been arrested and detained in what has been widely recognised as a politically motivated attempt to intimidate activists, civil society groups and the opposition party in the lead up to commune elections in 2017 and ultimately the national election in 2018.
It is in the midst of this climate of intimidation, that on Monday 19th September, Judge Ly Sokleng sentenced the four women: Tep Vanny; Heng Mom; Kong Chantha and Bo Chhorvy to six months in prison over a 2011 protest that turned violent when police and security guards were sent in to break it up. The activists were charged with insulting and obstructing public officials. The case had remained dormant until last month, when it was reactivated amid a government crackdown on the opposition and other critics.
Anyone present at those protests will never forget the images of the women being threatened, intimidated and physically violated by helmet clad security guards nearly twice their size.
Tep Vanny was sent back to pre-trial detention in CC2 prison – where she has now been for nearly five weeks – for separate charges relating to a protest held by the Boeung Kak Lake community in 2013 in front of the Prime Minister's house. No special enforcement order was issued so Bo Chhorvy and Kong Chantha – as well as Heng Mom, who was tried in absentia – were not arrested as their sentence will not be enforced until all appeals are exhausted.
Around 50 community members and supporters from other land communities and civil society groups gathered outside the court during the trial.
None of the evidence presented at the trial sufficiently proved the guilt of the four women but this is of no significance in the increasingly shrinking political space, where the judiciary and police have pledged their allegiance to the ruling party.
We demand that the Cambodian government immediately release Tep Vanny from prison; and that the trumped up charges against the other Beoung Kak activists be dismissed. Ultimately, the Cambodian government must commit to refrain from prosecuting human rights defenders and other civil society actors as a means of deterring or discouraging them from claiming their rights or freely expressing their opinions.
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