By Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s Deputy Campaigns Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific
There is nothing left of Boeung Kak lake in the centre of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. What used to be the largest body of water in the city has over the past years been completely filled with sand, as part of a development project to build new condominiums and office buildings. Since construction started in 2007 thousands of families have been illegally evicted, and the Boeung Kak area has become a focal point for human rights defenders in Cambodia.
One of these defenders is Tep Vanny, a housing and land rights activist who has spent the past decade leading a peaceful resistance in defence of her community around the lake. She has been harassed and beaten, and targeted by the authorities with politically motivated criminal charges. She has been arrested at least five times just since the last general election in 2013. Most recently, she was picked up in August 2016 and eventually handed a two and a half year prison sentence.
The “crime” for which she was arrested was her peaceful involvement in the “Black Monday” advocacy campaign, which highlights the imprisonment of five other rights defenders in Cambodia.
Amnesty International considers Vanny a prisoner of conscience, and has demanded her immediate and unconditional release. She is also one of the focus cases of our global BRAVE campaign, which works to ensure governments strengthen recognition and protection of human rights defenders.
Last week, my colleague and I travelled to Cambodia to find out more about the situation of Vanny and the community she has been fighting for.
First we went to meet her fellow human rights defenders from Boeung Kak. Bov Sophea, Song Srey Leap, Bo Chhorvy, Phan Chhunreth and Sie Sophal are five brave women who have all faced a sustained campaign of intimidation and harassment, including trumped up criminal charges. We met in front of a small house near the former lake, which looks even smaller when compared to the luxury developments being built close to it.
We gave them our recent report on the plight of human rights defenders and peaceful political activists in Cambodia, which highlighted their cases, and told them how thousands of people around the world had taken action to demand Vanny’s release.
The women told me how sad they felt that Vanny was imprisoned, how much they missed her, and even wished they could be with her in jail. They take turns in visiting Vanny in prison every two weeks, despite it being an expensive trip. They told me they were not afraid to go to jail, and that our visit and the fact that individuals and organisations from outside Cambodia are supporting them gave them hope. I was incredibly inspired by their cheerful attitude despite everything they had been through.
The following day we were given a stark reminder of how Vanny’s imprisonment has affected those closest to her, when we visited her mother and sister. They told us how Vanny’s two children, a 12-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy, badly miss their mother. While Vanny’s sister and children are able to visit her a few times a month, gaining access involves making various “payments” to prison guards.
Vanny’s mother is deeply proud of her daughter’s activism: “Even when she was beaten in protests, she would join the next day. If anyone is in trouble my daughter will support them for justice. She is so brave. My daughter cannot be bought. She stands firm and would not give up.” She urged Amnesty international to push the government to set Vanny free and thanked us for our campaign.
In our other meetings with Cambodian activists and civil society groups, we heard how the government is using its courts to silence human rights defenders. Thanks to its tight grip on the criminal justice system, authorities have brought a series of fabricated charges against members of the political opposition, trade union activists, human rights activists, and political commentators.
There are currently 20 human rights defenders and political activists behind bars. Hundreds of others are facing criminal charges as part of a concerted attempt to crush any public criticism, however peaceful. Activists often find themselves in limbo with charges hanging over them for months or even years on end, with no indication of when they will face trial. It’s an effective form of harassment in a country where the process itself is often the punishment.
On the final day of the visit, one of the Boeung Kak activists passed us a slip of paper that she had smuggled out of prison – it was a message from Vanny to me and my colleague:
‘’I am a clean person. Even though they make me dress up in a prisoner’s uniform and handcuff me like a criminal, my innocence should not be smeared with colour painted by the Cambodian courts and government.
Therefore as a human being living on this earth I should deserve the right to justice, because justice for me is like justice for any other person in the world. ‘’
This simple and inspiring message from a BRAVE, honest and indeed innocent woman will spur Amnesty International to continue to fight for her release. We who enjoy freedom cannot stay silent in the face of this injustice.
Show your solidarity with Tep Vanny – take action! Sign the petition and call on the Cambodian government to stop the crackdown on human rights defenders and release Tep Vanny immediately and unconditionally, and drop all charges against her.