Human rights observers in Cambodia and abroad on Tuesday decried the court’s continued incarceration of leading grassroots activist Tep Vanny after the Court of Appeal upheld her 30-month prison sentence for an intentional violence charge.
Ms. Vanny, 36, was sentenced in February over the old, disputed case, which was dug up last year amid her ongoing activism.
“It constitutes a blatant act of retaliation against Tep Vanny for her years of community leadership and peaceful activism,” said Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“Tep Vanny remains an iconic symbol of grassroots activism and resistance to oppression, in Cambodia and internationally—as such, the authorities’ attempts to silence Vanny’s voice are destined to fail,” Ms. Sopheap added.
At about 8 a.m., Appeal Court Presiding Judge Pol Sam Oeun gave his decision. “The judge concludes that the suspect committed the crime as the municipal court’s decision found,” he announced.
The room immediately erupted. Ms. Vanny shouted: “It’s injustice!”
“You will go to hell for having hurt an innocent person!” fellow activist Nget Khun yelled as she pointed at Judge Sam Oeun.
The reaction outside the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh on Tuesday morning was just as strong, with Ms. Vanny’s supporters holding a “cursing” ceremony with incense sticks, amid angry scenes.
“We want to curse those who filed the complaint against Tep Vanny for a crime she did not commit,” fellow Boeng Kak activist Sung Sreyleap said outside the courthouse, shouts and tears billowing from the group around her.
Ms. Vanny was arrested in August last year while leading a “Black Monday” protest calling for the release of five current and former rights workers known as the Adhoc 5, who were widely considered to be political prisoners.
Years-old charges were then laid against her, including those over a 2013 protest in which she allegedly attacked state security guards during a demonstration in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mansion in March 2013.
Ms. Vanny has claimed that she was attacked by the guards while attempting to deliver a petition to the premier, rather than being the aggressor.
In February, she was handed a two-and-a-half-year prison term and a fine of 5 million riel, or about $1,250, by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for intentional violence.
She was also ordered to compensate two Daun Penh district security guards allegedly attacked during the demonstration—Hor Hoeun and Uk Rotana—4 million riel (about $1,000) and 5 million riel (about $1,250), respectively.
As Judge Sam Oeun upheld the decision at Tuesday’s hearing, Ms. Vanny yelled: “The judge’s work is following orders!” echoing previous claims that the case was a government-led attempt to silence grassroots activism and that only Mr. Hun Sen’s orders could lead to her freedom.
Outside, curses were cast toward Mr. Hoeun and Mr. Rotana—who were absent from the hearing—by a group of more than 20 Boeng Kak community members clad with coconuts, lotus flowers and incense.
“I wish that anywhere you go you will be hit by thunder and die, leaving behind your wife and children,” Ms. Sreyleap said of the two plaintiffs.
Rhona Smith, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights, who is currently on an 11-day mission in Cambodia, said she planned to look into whether this case—and others within the judiciary—underwent a process that “complies with international human rights standards.”
“Within the court process as a whole, there are many issues in which clarity on evidentiary requirements could be helpful across a range of cases, not just that one,” she said of Ms. Vanny’s case.
But the Appeal Court verdict came as no surprise, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights’ Ms. Sopheap said.
“This conviction is based on a trial that failed to meet even the most basic standards of fair trial rights,” she said.
Soeung Senkaruna, senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, echoed Ms. Sopheap’s view.
“If we are looking at the facts, there is no need to arrest her,” he said. Additionally, “we have seen the detention has had no political benefit, because the national election is upcoming so villagers will protest even more than previously.”
“The court should release her to reform the justice system,” he added.
The verdict should serve as a motivator for international donors to demand change within the government, Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“The case against Tep Vanny is a blatant misuse of prosecutorial power,” he said.
“Cambodia’s international donors should be outraged by the government’s harassment of peaceful activists through the courts,” he added. “Together, they should publicly call for an end to the politically motivated and unsubstantiated charges against Tep Vanny and other detained activists in Cambodia.”
But Ms. Vanny said the verdict showed that the country’s fate had been sealed.
“The justice of the Khmer territory has fallen in the garbage bin,” she said as she was swept into a prison van.
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