A prominent leader of Cambodia's land rights activist Tep Vanny, upon arrival at her home in Boeung Kak, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 20, 2018.
A prominent leader of Cambodia's land rights activist Tep Vanny, upon arrival at her home in Boeung Kak, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 20, 2018.

PHNOM PENH - A high-profile Cambodian land activist has been freed from prison and two jailed journalists granted bail following the ruling party’s domination of an effectively uncontested election late last month.

Tep Vanny, a celebrated resistance leader in Phnom Penh’s most notorious land dispute, was released from jail Monday night after receiving a pardon from Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen for a series of convictions totalling 36 months.

Three of her fellow Boeung Kak lake community activists, Heng Mom, Bo Chhorvy and Kong Chantha, also were pardoned from 2016 convictions in relation to a protest more than half a decade before.

The next day, two former Radio Free Asia journalists who were jailed on treason charges shortly after the broadcaster shuttered its local office in September last last year were granted bail.

Tep, who had severed more than two years of her first 30-month sentence, told VOA on Monday night she “should have never been imprisoned for even one second,” calling the charges against her “unacceptable” and a reflection of the country’s compromised judicial system.

“More specifically, I am a normal citizen, like others in the Boeung Kak community, who have been victimized by government-approved development projects. So I should be granted warmth and justice, not a two-year jail term,” she said. “It’s mentally and physically painful for me, posing impacts to the feelings of me and my children.”

Unexpected freedom

The release came as a surprise because nothing had been communicated to her or her family, Tep said, speculating that interventions from national and international organizations must have secured her freedom.

Perhaps even more of a surprise though was the news that former RFA journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin (also known as Yeang Socheameta) had been granted bail.

Two former Radio Free Asia reporters Uon Chhin, le
Two former Radio Free Asia reporters Uon Chhin, left, and Yeang Socheamet, right, hold together after they walk outside the main prison of Prey Sar at the outskirt of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 21, 2018.

“The judge decided to release them on bail. For the reason, the judge has already stated in the warrant. They’ll be released this evening," said Phnom Penh Municipal court spokesperson Y Rin on Tuesday.

Y was unable to provide VOA with a copy of the relevant warrant to explain the judge’s reasoning and the pair’s lawyer, Key Vanny, did not answer his phone.

Uon and Yeang were arrested on treason charges during a sweeping pre-election press crackdown that saw more than 30 radio frequencies shutdown and critical news outlets pressured into closure.

In addition to treason, they later were charged with human trafficking and face 16 years in jail if convicted.

After her release on Monday night Vanny lent her support to the two men.

“I also plea for the freedom of two former RFA journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Socheameta, who are suffering injustice in the prison with all other jailed political activists, because they are all waiting for the freedom I was granted today,” she said.

Ongoing dispute

Tep and the three other Boeung Kak activists were convicted of committing “Insults Addressed to Public Officials” and “Obstruction of a Public Official with Aggravating Circumstances” at a 2011 protest.

Tep was separately slapped with a reactivated charge of an "Intentional Act of Violence with Aggravating Circumstances” stemming from a 2013 protest in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house.

She has long stood at the forefront of a bitter land dispute with the government and Shukaku, a firm owned by Choeung Sopheap, the wife of powerful ruling party Senator Lao Meng Khin.

Villagers from the Boeung Kak lake community shout
Villagers from the Boeung Kak lake community shout slogans during a protest rally in front of Appeals Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 22, 2015.

In 2007 Shukaku was granted a 133-hectare, 99-year land concession at Boeung Kak, where it evicted more than 4,000 families as it filled in the lake and demolished the homes of those who resisted.

Tep became one of the leaders of that resistance, mobilizing a group of almost all female activists in regular protests that eventually saw 13 of them jailed — one of three stints in prison her activism has landed her.

In a statement released on Tuesday, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights chairperson and Malaysian government MP Charles Santiago called Tep’s release welcome but long overdue.

“Tep Vanny and her fellow activists should never have been imprisoned in the first place — they have only bravely and peacefully campaigned for the rights of their communities,” he wrote.

“But as delighted as we are that Tep Vanny will be reunited with her family, this does not change the big picture in Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen has turned the country into a one-party state and run roughshod over human rights — short-term concessions will not fix this.”

Systematic repression

In the lead up to the country’s July 29 election, in which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won every seat, the only viable opposition party was banned and its leader, Kem Sokha, jailed.

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party Presiden
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha shows his inked finger after voting in local elections in Chak Angre Leu on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, June 4, 2017.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party leader, which is accused of orchestrating an internationally backed color revolution to overthrow the government, remains in prison with his final bail hearing set for tomorrow.

Australian filmmaker James Ricketsonalso is on trial this week on espionage charges, more than a year after he was arrested at an opposition protest where he was flying a drone.

On Friday, jailed political analyst Kim Sok was released after serving 18 months for incitement and defamation for comments he made on Facebook implying the government was complicit in the assassination of political analyst Kem Ley in 2016.