Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni on Monday granted royal pardons to prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny and three others convicted for their roles in a protest over a land grab in the capital Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake community.
Tep Vanny, 38, was arrested on Aug. 15, 2016 after participating in a demonstration, handed six days in prison for “insulting a public official” and, instead of being released when the sentence was served, charged with “aggravated intentional violence” for a protest she held more than three years earlier in front of the home of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
On Feb. 23, 2017, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Tep Vanny of assaulting two security officers during the 2013 protest at Hun Sen’s home, sentencing her to 30 months in prison and making her pay 9 million riels (U.S. $2,250) in compensation to the officers.
Three other female activists—Heng Mom, Bo Chhorvy, and Kong Chantha—were also convicted for “obstructing public officials” during the protest, but released on bail.
On Monday, King Sihamoni issued a royal decree at the behest of Hun Sen, overturning the convictions of all four activists without providing any reason for the decision.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, Tep Vanny said she was surprised by the order to free her and had been expecting to attend a new court hearing for her case on Aug. 24.
“I was given no prior notice that I would be released,” she said.
“The prison guards came to inform me just before 8:30 p.m. that I would be freed soon and said I should get my things ready. I told them they had come to tell the wrong person.”
But while she welcomed her release, she lamented having languished in prison for more than two years on a conviction she maintained was “unjust.”
“Although I am happy tonight for the freedom to meet with my family, relatives, and community members, my pain remains with me, as I have spent over two years in jail,” she said.
“The pain I feel is not only with me, but also with my family and children, so my freedom today is a mixture of happiness and bitterness.”
Tep Vanny was awarded the 2013 Vital Voices Global Leadership Award for her work campaigning on behalf of the community evicted from Boeung Kak Lake, which was later filled with sand to make way for a development project with ties to Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
On Monday, she appealed to Hun Sen to release all of the country’s remaining political prisoners, including former RFA reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who have spent nine months behind bars on “espionage” charges.
She said that because her release came so suddenly, she would need to take some time to formulate a plan for future activities.
King Sihamoni’s decree came days after Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) announced the official results of the country’s July 29 election, confirming that the CPP had swept the ballot and won all 125 parliamentary seats in play.
The election had been widely dismissed as unfree and unfair following the dissolution in November of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the arrest of its president Kem Sokha two months earlier, amid allegations of a plot to topple the government.
Hun Sen, who added another five-year term to his 33 years in office with the election win, has made a practice of heavy-handed crackdowns on his critics, followed by a relaxation of restrictions after facing international condemnation.
Last week, the U.S. announced an expansion of visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of “concrete steps” aimed at pressuring Cambodia to “reverse course” that included a decision to withdraw funding for last month’s elections.
The European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, also withdrew support ahead of the ballot and is currently reviewing a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.
Various rights groups had demanded Tep Vanny’s release in the lead up to the Aug. 15 anniversary marking her two years in prison, with New York-based Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson calling her conviction “just one of many outrageous cases in which the authorities have misused Cambodia’s justice system to harass and imprison peaceful land rights activists.”
On Monday, London-based Amnesty International’s senior director of global operations Minar Pimple welcomed Tep Vanny’s release in a statement, but called it “long overdue.”
“Tep Vanny has endured a catalogue of injustice—from baseless, politically-motivated charges to unfair trials—and should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” Pimple said, adding that Cambodia’s government should allow her to resume her activism, quash all convictions against her, and halt any investigations into any other pending charges.
“Additionally, the many other human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience still languishing behind bars in the country must also be immediately and unconditionally released,” he said.
Also on Monday, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed calls by former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a slew of convictions seen as politically motivated, for the government to free Kem Sokha, ahead of a bail hearing for the current CNRP chief scheduled for Aug. 22.
In the aftermath of what he termed “Cambodia’s sham election,” Sam Rainsy had called on Hun Sen to release Kem Sokha to “avoid international condemnation” of his government and its mandate.
Phay Siphan rejected Sam Rainsy’s demand as “crazy,” adding that as a sovereign nation, Cambodia has no need for external approval of its internal affairs.
“Cambodia’s government doesn’t need legitimacy from anyone or anything, besides the election and the electoral institution,” he said.
“The demand to release Kem Sokha is … politically motivated. Kem Sokha’s case is being handled by the courts, which have both the facts and legal precedents, and it’s not politically motivated.”
Political analyst Bong Deth told RFA that Hun Sen has “much to lose” by keeping Kem Sokha in jail following the election, but acknowledged that he was unlikely to order the opposition chief freed until attending to the formation of a new government early next month.
He suggested that Hun Sen might consider releasing all of the nation’s political prisoners once the new government is in place, as part of a bid to placate the international community.
In June, Cambodia’s Appeal Court refused Kem Sokha’s fourth appeal for bail from pre-trial detention on charges of treason, “because an investigation into his case is ongoing,” court spokesman Touch Tharith told reporters after the hour-long closed-door hearing, which the defendant was prevented from attending.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Vanrith Chrea. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.