Tep Vanny, the country’s most prominent land rights activist, was sentenced to 30 months in prison on Thursday for her role in a protest almost four years ago, in what critics slammed as a politically fueled attempt by the government to sideline her in the run-up to crucial elections.
In a similar vein to the case’s first hearing, which was adjourned earlier this month after it descended into chaos and the judge said he became tired, Ms. Vanny and her fellow activists from Phnom Penh’s eviction-hit Boeng Kak neighborhood were vocal throughout the session at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
“Whoever is responsible for this harassment, please suffer in the future,” Ms. Vanny shouted, while holding her hands above her head in prayer.
The case, which was dormant for more than three years before it was reactivated last year, relates to a 2013 protest in which about 30 activists attempted to deliver a petition to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mansion in central Phnom Penh, calling for the release of activist Yorm Bopha. The protest turned violent—but activists and human rights workers monitoring the protest claim it was security guards who attacked the protesters.
Under questioning as witnesses on Thursday, three fellow activists—Nget Khun, Bo Chhorvy and Kong Chantha—scoffed at the idea that Ms. Vanny could have injured the Daun Penh security guards, who have developed a well-documented reputation for violence and the use of disproportionate force since the disputed 2013 election.
“I didn’t see that they were injured,” said Ms. Khun, a 77-year-old activist better known by her nickname Mummy. “Please, judge, look at the plaintiff, he’s almost 100 kg. If he hit us once then we would faint.”
Ms. Chhorvy then criticized the court’s apparent lack of evidence. “If she caused violence, where is the evidence and the video? Please show us,” she said.
No such evidence was presented. Still, Presiding Judge Long Kesphirum found Ms. Vanny guilty of intentional violence with aggravating circumstances.
“The Phnom Penh Municipal Court decided to sentence defendant Tep Vanny to two years and six months in prison and fine 5 million riel [about $1,250] to the state budget,” he said.
Ms. Vanny was also ordered to compensate two district security guards, Hor Hoeun and Uk Rotana, 4 million riel, or about $1,000, and 5 million riel, or about $1,250, respectively.
There were violent scenes outside court during the hearing, with Prampi Makara district security guards tussling with Boeng Kak activists on the sidewalk and road. Video footage soon went viral on social media showing the guards chasing opposition activist Mao Socheat into nearby City Mall and beating him inside a fast-food restaurant.
The verdict against Ms. Vanny is the latest in what is widely seen as a government offensive against critics, from activists and human rights defenders to political analysts and opposition officials. Ms. Vanny is among at least 26 political prisoners, according to rights group Licadho.
A statement released on Thursday and signed by 61 civil society organizations—referring to the district guards as “para-police”—pointed out severe deficiencies in the case against Ms. Vanny.
“During her trial, which resumed this morning after nearly three weeks’ postponement, no credible evidence was presented either to justify the charges brought against Vanny nor to prove that any violence whatsoever was committed against the para-police,” the statement said.
Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said the decision was a clear effort to muzzle dissent among activists.
“Her most recent conviction and prison sentence is a transparent attempt to silence her, to silence Boeung Kak Lake and to silence others who speak out on human rights,” Ms. Patel said in an email.
Bov Sophea, who was among the protesters who scuffled with the guards, said the length of Ms. Vanny’s sentence was farcical given sentences for far worse offenses—notably, the decision to sentence former Bavet City governor Chhuk Bundith to 18 months for shooting into a crowd of protesting garment workers.
“It’s very unjust that Chhuk Bundith, who shot and injured three garment workers, was convicted to one and a half years, but Ms. Tep Vanny, who just protested to demand intervention from [Mr. Hun Sen], was convicted to two and a half years,” she said.