Two land rights activists in Cambodia were convicted Monday of insulting a public official for their version of a “Black Monday” protest earlier this month.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea guilty and sentenced each of them to six days of imprisonment and an 8,000 riels (U.S. $20) fine – a verdict the activists and their supporters said is unjust.
“It is very unjust for us as victims,” Bov Sophea told RFA’s Khmer Service in a telephone interview. “We only called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to solve the land issues. I believe the court’s ruling against us is nothing short of an attempt to silence us.”
Bov Sophea and Tep Vanny were originally charged with the more serious offense of incitement to commit a felony for their protest, in which they buried headless mannequins in sand pits to represent the mindlessness of government officials.
Under the new charge, Bov Sophea was released for time served, but Tep Vanny was still being held.
The arrest and conviction failed to dampen Bov Sophea’s enthusiasm as she vowed to continue with the protests.
“Such action only adds fuel to the fire of our wrath,” she said as she called on the government to free Tep Vanny.
“Please release Tep Vanny immediately,” she said. “It’s not acceptable to imprison her.”
‘Who have we insulted?’
Another land-rights activist, Song Srey Leap, told RFA the convictions are nonsensical because their protest wasn’t aimed at a single individual.
“Who have we insulted? We used the headless dummies to refer to the institutions, and not any particular individuals,” she said. “Since they have treated us like that, it means the government colludes with the court officials to protect the corrupt and bad people who have mistreated us.”
An official with the Cambodian rights group Licadho said the government’s only reason to pursue the women was because they are well known for their activities.
“The court’s ruling badly affects people’s rights,” said Lichado official Am Sam Ath. “Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea were arrested and detained because they are prominent activists.”
Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea gained prominence as activists fighting the Boeung Kak Lake land grab, when some 3,500 families were evicted from land surrounding the urban lake.
The lake was filled with sand to make way for a development project with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents— is a major cause of protests in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Laos.
Black Monday began as an effort to win the release of four human rights workers and an election official who were jailed on charges widely seen as attempts to muzzle political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP.
The protest, which gets its name from the color of the cloths that protestors wear, has become a more generalized form of demonstration.
Hun Sen and other officials have condemned the protests as a “color revolution.”
Over the years, Hun Sen has repeatedly inveighed against “color revolutions,” named after a series of popular movements that used passive resistance to topple governments in countries of the former Soviet Union during the 2000s.
Reported for RFA’s Khmer Service by Sel San. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.