Cambodian court upholds jail term for land rights activist

Cambodian protesters hold a portrait of Beoung Kak lake resident representative Tep Vanny (right), during a demonstration outside the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Tuesday. (EPA photo)

PHNOM PENH -- A Cambodian court on Tuesday upheld a 2½-year prison term against a prominent land rights activist accused of inciting violence at a protest she helped lead outside of Prime Minister Hun Sen's residence, as dozens of her supporters outside conducted a “cursing ceremony” against national leaders and judges.

Tep Vanny was convicted in late February of aggravated intentional violence from the March 2013 protest, in which several government security personnel were hurt. The Appeal Court on Tuesday concluded that the trial followed legal procedures.

Wearing an orange prison uniform, Tep Vanny condemned the decision as an “injustice".

“I became victimised because my land was grabbed, and now I have been put in prison,” she shouted outside court before security guards pushed her into a van.

Tep Vanny is known for demonstrating against evictions from the capital's Boeng Kak lakeshore community, where the government granted a land concession to a Cambodian tycoon and a Chinese company to develop a luxury residential and commercial community.

The protest at Hun Sen's residence in Phnom Penh, the capital, was among several demanding compensation for the evictions. A melee broke out when guards refused to let the protesters deliver a petition.

At her February trial, Tep Vanny said she was the victim in the case, and accused the court and the police of unfair treatment. She said the protesters, who were all women, were not violent, and that it was the security forces who attacked them.

“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.”

Tep Vanny has another pending case against her from August 2016, when she was charged with “insult of public officials” in connection with another protest.

Hun Sen in the past year has cracked down on critics and political opponents in what is seen as an effort to strengthen his position ahead of a general election in July 2018. The prime minister and his ruling Cambodian People's Party usually turn to the courts -- seen as politically malleable -- to put pressure on their opponents.

Outside the court complex, about 30 of Tep Vanny's supporters organized a Brahman ceremony to curse the judges and national leaders. Brahmanism is related to Hinduism and Buddhism.

Tearfully holding incense sticks and candles, the women urged the Lord Hindu to punish national leaders, judges and their families.

“I totally lost faith in the Cambodian judiciary system. You have robbed our land and then put us in prison,” said Bo Chhorvy, 40.

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