On One-Year Anniversary, Activists Call for Tep Vanny Release

As prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny spent her 365th day in prison on Tuesday, a crowd of more than 50 Boeng Kak lake community members gathered in a sandy plot outside the neighborhood to call once again for her freedom.

Waving a banner picturing Ms. Vanny behind bars, with the words “Free Tep Vanny” fashioned out of lotus flowers, they were joined by allies, NGO workers and union representatives.

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Protesters petition for activist Tep Vanny’s release in a Boeng Kak neighborhood protest on Tuesday, on the one-year anniversary of her arrest. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“We won’t stop protesting if Ms. Tep Vanny has not been freed,” said Bo Chhorvy, a Boeng Kak protester. “Her detention is making the international world see how bad the government is and that they could face a loss of votes in the election.”

The protesters released white balloons during a Buddhist ceremony to mark the one-year anniversary of Ms. Vanny’s imprisonment.

Last week, the Appeal Court upheld her 30-month prison sentence over charges related to a 2013 demonstration in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mansion. Earlier in the day, more than 20 Boeng Kak protesters proclaimed Ms. Vanny’s innocence and submitted petitions seeking her release to eight embassies around Phnom Penh. Riding in tuk-tuks and holding aloft photographs of Ms. Vanny, they visited the E.U. delegation and the Japanese, Australian, French, U.S., U.K., Canadian, German and Swedish embassies.

Ms. 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.

International outcry over Ms. Vanny’s imprisonment is growing.

The U.N. has called for her release and its special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, attended Tuesday’s ceremony. She met with Ms. Vanny briefly, she said, and assured her that the U.N. is advocating on her behalf.

“I was able to assure her that we are following the case carefully and that we are awaiting the communications from the government for a response to the letters that were sent by the U.N.,” Ms. Smith said.

The vice chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, Barbara Lochbihler, recommended on Tuesday that the bloc rethink its trade policy with Cambodia if politically-motivated arrests continue.

“If the repression does not stop, the E.U. must rethink its trade policy,” Ms. Lochbihler said in a media release.

​The E.U. is the largest importer of Cambodian garments, taking in nearly half of garments in the first half of last year, according to the International Labour Organization.

Naly Pilorge, deputy advocacy director for Licadho, said the yearslong, ongoing protests by the Boeng Kak community had a two-fold purpose. Ideally, Ms. Vanny would be released “and all her charges dropped and convictions overturned,” Ms. Pilorge said. “Secondly, and more attainable, we want to keep her from being forgotten.”

Ms. Pilorge said Ms. Vanny had done nothing illegal.

“She’s very much targeted for reasons that are not legal,” Ms. Pilorge said. “They are portrayed as legal, but it is for other reasons.”

But Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said claims of political motivation behind Ms. Vanny’s imprisonment will only confuse the public.

Ms. Vanny “should focus on having a good lawyer to protect her instead of confusing people about political motivation,” Mr. Siphan said.

Ms. Pilorge, however, said the protests would not stop. “The tension will continue,” she said. “The demands for her release will continue.”

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