It is exactly two years since prominent human rights defender Tep Vanny was jailed after protesting against the imprisonment of a group of rights workers known as the Adhoc 5. Southeast Asia Globe looks at her story so far
UPDATE: On 20 august, 2018, land rights activist and human rights defender Tep Vanny was released from Prey Sar prison after more than two years of imprisonment. A Royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni was granted for her release along with three other Boeung Kak land activists at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
When private development company Shukaku took on a $79m lease to build on Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh, it sounded the start of a long dispute between city authorities and the local residents, who faced forcible eviction. Led by a group of very persistent women from the community, the residents fought hard for sufficient compensation packages that were never forthcoming.
Tep Vanny was one of the fiercest protesters. Her name has now become synonymous with what remains one of Cambodia’s most infamous land conflict cases. But she didn’t stop there. Since then she has garnered international recognition for her dogged fight for justice and her staunch defense of other human rights defenders.
Vanny and 12 other Boeung Kak Lake women are sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail – after a lawyer-free trial that lasted just three hours – for their part in a demonstration at Boeung Kak Lake. They are now referred to as the “Boeung Kak 13”.
The Boeung Kak 13 are released after a global outcry, including support from then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Tep Vanny joins protesters in front of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house to peacefully call for the release of imprisoned community member and activist Yorm Bopha.
Around 70 women are met by a large security presence – kitted out with shields and batons – as the group also demanded the authorities honour the 12.44 hectares land demarcation promised to Boeung Kak Lake residents. As many as ten protesters are injured by the 200-strong contingent of Daun Penh security guards who break up the demonstration. Authorities later accuse Vanny of instigating violence against the security forces, claiming that two guards were injured by the protesters.
English filmmaker Christopher Kelly’s documentary A Cambodian Spring is first shown at the Sheffield Doc Fest in the UK. Shot over a span of six years, it focuses on the Boeung Kak Lake case and follows the actions of three Cambodian land rights activists, of which Vanny is one.
The documentary went on to win multiple awards and received international acclaim.
Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea are arrested outside the Daun Penh police station on 15 August 2016 for their part in the ongoing Black Monday campaign, calling for the release of the Adhoc 5. The five human rights workers were arrested after being accused of bribing the alleged mistress of then-acting opposition leader Kem Sokha while the politician was embroiled in a sex scandal widely believed to be politically motivated.
Vanny is handed down an additional charge of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances”, and sent to pre-trial detention in Prey Sar prison, Phnom Penh. The same day, she and Bov Sophea are convicted of “insulting a public official”, and sentenced to six days imprisonment.
Representatives of the Boeung Kak Lake community deliver petitions to the World Bank and the embassy of the Delegation of the European Union to Cambodia, calling for an intervention to resolve the remaining land conflict and also for the release of Tep Vanny.
The World Bank had frozen all its loans to Cambodia following the controversies around the Boeung Kak Lake dispute: “Until an agreement is reached with the residents of Boeung Kak Lake, we do not agree to provide any new lending to Cambodia”, World Bank country director Annette Dixon said in a statement in 2011.
The funding was resumed again in early 2016.
The Supreme Court in Phnom Penh rejects a bail request by Vanny and she is taken back to Prey Sar prison.
Tep Vanny is convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison with cases dating back to 2011 for “insulting and obstructing public officials” during a protest calling for a resolution to the Boeung Kak Lake land dispute and the 2013 peaceful protest in front of Hun Sen’s house.
The court orders her to pay a fine of 5,000,000 riel [$1,250] as well as a compensation totaling 9,000,000 riel [$2,250] to two Daun Penh security guards.
Kong Chamroeun – a member of Hun Sen’s cabinet who often deals with land disputes – tells a group of activists petitioning for the release of Vanny that she should drop her appeal if she wants to be released.
“I will tell you the legal procedure for a pardon or reduced sentence: you should go tell [Vanny] to ask to withdraw the appeal and just let the verdict be finalised,” human rights website Front Line Defenders reports Chamroeun as saying. “She can ask for a pardon or reduction after the verdict is finalised.”
Activists Sar Sorn and Nat Sreynak are arrested and questioned for more than 10 hours for conducting a small “Black Monday” protest calling for the release of Tep Vanny and “The Adhoc 5”. They were let go in the evening.
After 427 days, The Adhoc 5 are released from pre-trial detention. Meanwhile, Tep Vanny is fast approaching one year of imprisonment.
A Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh upholds the conviction and sentencing of Vanny.
Today marks one year of Vanny’s imprisonment.
“Tep Vanny is innocent. She is a woman who is greatly committed to fulfilling her duty as a citizen. Yet, she has been imprisoned three times already, because of the Cambodian judicial system” said Song Sreyleap, a fellow Boeung Kak Lake community activist to Amnesty’s Josef Benedict.
Vital Voices Global Partnership, a group that recognises the role of women in promoting human rights, issues a letter of support for Vanny.
The letter is received by then-opposition CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who expresses support for Vanny’s work. “While you are imprisoned, take strength from us,” reads the letter. “We will tirelessly advocate for you, and share in your fight.”
The Supreme Court in Phnom Penh upholds the conviction and 30-month prison sentence imposed on Vanny. At this point, she has served 18 months of the sentence.
“Tep Vanny has now spent two years behind bars on fabricated charges and should be released immediately,” says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“This is just one of many outrageous cases in which the authorities have misused Cambodia’s justice system to harass and imprison peaceful land rights activists.”
Photo credits (in order of appearance)
Main image and first image: Kith Serey / EPA
Timeline background and images Mak Remissa / EPA
Annette Dixon quote box photo: Kith Serey / EPA
Song Sreyleap quote box picture: Mak Remissa / EPA
Be a Part of the Story
Southeast Asia Globe is powered by members.
Membership programs will be available soon. Until then, sign up for our weekly summary of stories from the region.
Donate and support independent journalism.
Donations help us keep our journalism free and independent. Support stories from Southeast Asia that matter.