Cambodia: Groups demand immediate release of activist Tep Vanny
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Cambodia: Groups demand immediate release of activist Tep Vanny

ONE year on from Cambodian rights activist Tep Vanny’s arrest, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the local community are coming out in force to condemn the government’s treatment of the Boeung Kak Lake resident and demand her immediate release.

Tuesday marked the 365th day Vanny has languished in Prey Sar, Cambodia largest prison. Locals in Vanny’s home region, Boueng Kak lake, marked the day with a candlelight vigil. A collection of 64 prominent human rights NGOs also released a statement to “condemn her arbitrary imprisonment.”

The joint statement – from organisations such as Amnesty International, Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression – called “for her convictions to be overturned, for all ongoing politically motivated and unsubstantiated charges against her to be dropped, and for her immediate release from prison.”

Vanny has long fought to protect the rights of members of her local Boeung Kak Lake community following their forced eviction from their homes in Phnom Penh to make way for a luxury resort. Since then, she has become a figurehead of human rights activism and has often drawn the ire of the government.

On the day of her arrest on Aug 15, 2016, Vanny was staging a cursing ceremony as part of the so-called “Black Monday” protest movement – a campaign to challenge the arbitrary pre-trial detention of five human rights defenders.

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Vanny was convicted of “insulting of a public official” for the offence and sentenced to six days in prison. During her time in incarceration, the authorities reactivated three additional dormant charges, the latest one involving a 30-month sentence for allegedly instigating violence at a 2013 demonstration in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mansion. The ruling was upheld by the Appeal Court last week.

“It is clear the authorities are using the courts to lock me up, silence my freedom of expression and break my spirit” Vanny said following her detention.

“They want to stop me from advocating and seeking a solution for the remaining people from Boeung Kak Lake as well as other campaigns to demand justice in our society.”

Vanny is counted among at least 20 political prisoners in Cambodia, according to rights group Licadho. She is widely seen as a victim of a government offensive against its critics, from rights defenders to analysts and opposition politicians. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party has ramped up its far-reaching crackdown on critics in recent month as general election looms next year.

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“The sweeping crackdown on any form of criticism in Cambodia must end immediately,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s Deputy Campaigns Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“Hardly a week goes by without news of another human rights defender or political activist being harassed, charged or imprisoned for their ‘inconvenient’ opinions. It is deeply troubling courts in the country are being used to do the authorities’ bidding.”

United Nations Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith is currently in Cambodia for a 10-day visit to review the rights of children and the general human rights situation.

According to The Phnom Penh Post, Smith attended the vigil on Tuesday and informed Boeung Kak residents she had met Vanny in prison and would raise her case at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.