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Cambodia Convicts, Fines Two Land Rights Activists over Mannequin Protests

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.

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Brothers Who Fled Cambodia After Kem Ley’s Murder to Return Home

UPDATED at 3:40 P.M. EST on 2016-08-19

Twin brothers who claim to be the last people to have seen independent political commentator Kem Ley alive the day before he was murdered said Friday that they are planning to return to Cambodia to resume their work as environmental activists.

Chum Huor and Chum Huot, environmental activists who were close to Kem Ley, fled Cambodia on July 14, four days after the pundit’s murder and after they had posted criticisms about the murder investigation on social media and provided an account of the slaying to the American embassy in the capital Phnom Penh.

They told RFA’s Khmer Service via phone from Bangkok that they want to return to Cambodia to continue helping those who have been “victimized” by the 260-megawatt Don Sahong hydropower dam project being built on the Mekong River in southern Laos about one kilometer (0.62 miles) upstream from Cambodia.

The brothers have participated in campaigns and protests to stop the building of the dam, which began last December.

Cambodian villagers in Stung Treng, Kratie, and other provinces along Lake Tonle Sap and the river system on which the dam is being built fear that the hydropower project will detrimentally affect their lives and livelihoods because it could block transboundary fish migration routes, harm local and regional fisheries, and lead to the extinction of Mekong dolphins.

“If we go abroad, we will be there for so many years,” Chum Huor said. “We see people living along the Mekong River, and if we don’t help them now, we will feel sad.”

“If we go to a third country we can have an education, accommodations—everything,” he said. “We would have physical dignity, but we would regret not being able to help them and be remorseful about it.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had granted the brothers refugee status so they could live in a third country.

The brothers said they will return to Cambodia soon, but did not specify a date.

Reported by Sarada Taing for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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Brothers Who Witnessed Kem Ley’s Murder to Return to Cambodia

Twin brothers who claim to have witnessed the murder last month of independent political commentator Kem Ley said Friday that they are planning to return to Cambodia to resume their work as environmental activists.

Chum Huor and Chum Huot, environmental activists who were close to Kem Ley, fled Cambodia on July 14, four days after the pundit’s murder and after they had posted criticisms about the murder investigation on social media and provided an account of the slaying to the American embassy in the capital Phnom Penh.

They told RFA’s Khmer Service via phone from Bangkok that they want to return to Cambodia to continue helping those who have been “victimized” by the 260-megawatt Don Sahong hydropower dam project being built on the Mekong River in southern Laos about one kilometer (0.62 miles) upstream from Cambodia.

The brothers have participated in campaigns and protests to stop the building of the dam, which began last December.

Cambodian villagers in Stung Treng, Kratie, and other provinces along Lake Tonle Sap and the river system on which the dam is being built fear that the hydropower project will detrimentally affect their lives and livelihoods because it could block transboundary fish migration routes, harm local and regional fisheries, and lead to the extinction of Mekong dolphins.

“If we go abroad, we will be there for so many years,” Chum Huor said. “We see people living along the Mekong River, and if we don’t help them now, we will feel sad.”

“If we go to a third country we can have an education, accommodations—everything,” he said. “We would have physical dignity, but we would regret not being able to help them and be remorseful about it.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had granted the brothers refugee status so they could live in a third country.

The brothers said they will return to Cambodia soon, but did not specify a date.

Reported by Sarada Taing for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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Cambodia Cranks Up Election Process Raising Fraud Concerns

As Cambodian officials rolled out a new voter registration system on Thursday, questions were raised about the nation’s ability to conduct free and fair elections.

While Cambodian authorities announced a three-month registration process that will run from Sept. 1 to Nov. 29, the U.N. ambassador to Cambodia expressed concern that the country’s current political situation could poison the process.

“The European Union has expressed concerns over certain actions of the authorities in implementing legal procedures against the opposition party’s officials, civil society’s representatives, and the National Election Commission (NEC) deputy general secretary,” said Ambassador George Edgar.

“Cambodia’s authorities must ensure an atmosphere that all political parties and nongovernmental agencies are able to do their jobs without obstacles,” he added during a ceremony announcing the launch of the registration system.

NEC Deputy Secretary-General Ny Chakriya is one of five people arrested by the government in its wide-ranging probe into an alleged affair opposition Cambodia national rescue party leader Kem Sokha had with a young hairdresser named Khom Chandaraty.

Staffers with the rights group ADHOC Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan and Lim Mony were also arrested in the probe. Ny Chakrya and the activists are charged with bribery or accessory to bribery for allegedly attempting to pay Khom Chandaraty hush money.

The charges are viewed by many as an attempt by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to smear the opposition before local elections in 2017 and national elections in 2018.

While Hun Sen and the CPP have ruled the country for more than three decades, Cambodia’s ruling party suffered a dramatic drop in support during the country’s last election in 2013, and could see even more erosion in the upcoming elections.

Provincial questions

Edgar was not the only one raising concerns, as the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) also took issue with the transparency of the process.

COMFREL official Sin Tit Seiha said government recruiting of polling officials in Cambodia’s northwestern Battambang province was suspect as he questioned the number of former NEC officials who were selected.

“COMFREL has two projects. First, to observe the registration list once it has been generated,” he said. “We will look into it, then we can make the assessment.”

A Battambang election official disputed that notion, saying the selection of the officials was an open one.

“During the exam, officials from the national level as well as the provincial level came down,” said  Battambang Election Commission Secretary Vorn Porn.

Vorn Porn told RFA that there are many former NEC officials among the 430 contractors who were recruited, but did not give the total.

“The controllers of the exams were from the districts, with three from each district, and commune councils from every political party came to observe,” he explained.

The NEC was revamped last year, as part of a deal in July 2014 which saw opposition lawmakers return to the National Assembly following a 10-month boycott protesting a disputed national election in 2013.

The CPP was declared victorious in the 2013 election, sparking widespread protests and allegations of government control of the NEC, which oversees polls in the country.

Reported by Khe Sonorng and Hum Hour. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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Kem Ley's Wife Seeks Legal Assistance in Murder Case that Roiled Cambodia

Bou Rachana, the widow of slain government critic Kem Ley, has decided to take matters into her own hands and has asked a leading Cambodian nongovernmental organization to prepare legal action related to the murder of her husband.

“Dr. Kem Ley’s wife decided to seek a lawyer from CENTRAL to file a complaint to find justice for her husband,” said Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights. CENTRAL is a labor-oriented NGO that aims to give Cambodian working people transparent and accountable governance for labor and human rights through legal aid and other actions.

Kem Ley was gunned down in broad daylight on July 10 when he stopped in a Star Mart store in Phnom Penh where he liked to drink coffee with friends.

While authorities charged former soldier Oueth Ang with the killing, many in Cambodia don’t believe the government’s story that he was killed by the former soldier over a debt.

Just days before he was gunned down, Kem Ley had discussed on an RFA Khmer Service call-in show a report by London-based Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 31 years.

Kem Ley was buried in southwestern Cambodia’s Takeo province two weeks later after a weekend funeral procession that drew around two million mourners.

Deputy prosecutor and Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Ly Sophanna who is handling the case, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that the prosecuting judge is continuing the government’s investigation.

While the government investigation moves ahead, various nongovernmental agencies are gearing up for more action related to Kem Ley’s slaying and preserving his legacy, Moeun Tola told RFA.

In addition to the legal action, NGOs are dividing up into groups that seek to explain the political and human rights situation in Cambodia to the national and international community, place a Kem Ley statue in Freedom Park in the capital, Phnom Penh, and safeguard Kem Ley’s family’s security.

Reported for RFA’s Khmer Service by Tin Zakariya. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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Cambodian Court Charges Boeung Kak Lake Activists With ‘Incitement’

Cambodian authorities jailed a pair of Boeung Kak Lake activists today for their role in a “Black Monday” protest after charging them with incitement to commit a felony.

If convicted, Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 4 million riels (U.S.$ 975) for the Aug. 15 demonstration that was part of a larger effort to win the release of jailed human rights workers and press the government to resolve land-grab issues across the country.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Ly Sophanna, in a post on the mobile messaging app Telegram, said the court decided to detain the women in Prey Sar prison and that their trial will resume Aug. 22.

Tep Vanny told reporters when she and Bov Sophea arrived at the courthouse that authorities had asked them where they obtained the dummies, black earrings, candles, incense sticks, U.N. and Cambodian flags, and other materials used in their protest.

“There is no law banning citizens from using those materials for advocacy campaigns,” she said.

In the peaceful Aug. 15 protest that police broke up, the two women buried headless dummies in sand pits, saying they represented the court, court officials, critic Kem Ley’s killer, and those behind the murder. Their missing heads represented “brainlessness,” the protestors told RFA.

Government critic Kem Ley was murdered on July 10, and many in Cambodia don’t believe the government’s story that he was killed by a former soldier over a debt.

The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Myanmar.

In one of the most egregious land-grabs, some 3,500 families were evicted from the land surrounding Boeung Kak Lake, which 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).

Spanish researcher deported

While authorities sent the two Cambodian women to Prey Sar prison, they deported a Spanish researcher who joined them in their Black Monday protest.

Interior Ministry chief investigator Ouk Hay Seila told RFA’s Khmer Service that Marga Bujosa Segado had violated Cambodian labor law and was also active in the land activists’ demonstrations.

“We deported her just now via Bangkok Airway to her own country,” he said.

Activists wearing black have demonstrated for the past 15 Mondays in 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.

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.

Um Sam An bail appeal denied

The jailing of the Boeung Kak Lake activists comes as the supreme court rejected opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker Um Sam An’s bail request.

His attorney, Hem Socheat, said the lawmaker’s legal team may file a complaint to the Constitution Council of Cambodia, asking it to interpret the constitutional question surrounding the lawmaker’s immunity.

“What the investigative judge and the supreme court said is that they do not have the authority to examine the lawmaker’s immunity,” he said.

The council was established under the constitution adopted in 1993 to decide if the laws approved by the national legislature are constitutional and to oversee litigation related to the election of the Cambodian National Assembly and Senate.

Cambodian lawmakers have immunity from prosecution for opinions expressed in the exercise of their duties. A two-thirds vote of the legislature is necessary to strip a lawmaker of his immunity unless the legislator is caught in the act of committing a crime.

Um Sam An was jailed after Hun Sen ordered police to arrest anyone accusing the government of using “fake” maps to cede national territory to neighboring Vietnam.

The lawmaker says he found a map in the United States Library of Congress that he claims is different from the one Hun Sen and the government used to represent the final official say on the border issue.

On April 12, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court officially charged Um Sam An with two criminal offenses over his accusations that the government had ceded land to Vietnam along its border.

So Chantha, a political science professor who lectures at several Cambodian universities, said the court’s stance on the lawmaker’s case is not neutral.

“In any cases relating to politics, we see that the court never gives a fair decision or trial,” he said.

So Chantha told RFA the caught-in-the-act clause in the constitution shouldn’t apply because “what Um Sam An did, he did it in an attempt to take part in safeguarding Cambodia’s sovereignty.”

Reported by San Sel, Ieng Neang and Tha Tai for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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