Cambodian land rights activist pardoned after two years in prison

Prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny has been a thorn in the side for authorities as she advocates for Phnom Penh communities displaced by unchecked development.
Prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny has been a thorn in the side for authorities as she advocates for Phnom Penh communities displaced by unchecked development.PHOTO: AFP

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Cambodia's king has pardoned prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny after she spent two years behind bars, as the ruling party loosens its grip on dissent in the wake of a flawed election victory last month.

Vanny has been a thorn in the side of authorities for years advocating for Phnom Penh communities displaced by unchecked development, and has been in and out of jail.

Her pardon was granted late on Monday (Aug 20), and was requested by prime minister Hun Sen days after he officially extended his 33-year grip on power.

Analysts have said Hun Sen could use pardons to help deflect criticism, as he has in the past, amid questions of legitimacy after July's national election was widely decried as a sham.

Vanny was last arrested in August 2016 and was hit with an additional two and a half year jail term last year, just as her sentence was due to expire.

She told AFP on Tuesday while picking up her belongings at Phnom Penh's Prey Sar prison that she was surprised by the decision, which cut short her time in prison by about a year.

"I was reluctant to believe it when prison guards told me to prepare myself for the release, so I asked them: 'Are you joking with me?'" she said.

Land disputes are common in Cambodia where the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge abolished private ownership in the late 1970s, complicating property claims for decades.

 
 

Three other activists who were already out on bail were also included in the pardon signed by King Norodom Sihamoni.

Hun Sen had cracked down on perceived threats in the run-up to the election, the sixth national poll since a UN-backed election in 1993.

The main opposition party was dissolved and one of its leaders arrested, clearing the way for Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party to grab all seats in parliament in the July vote - turning the country into a one-party state.

Vanny said she would continue her work but suggested she would dial down her activism as it had taken a toll on her family.

"I was in jail four times," she said. "So it affects my family, especially my children, and I lost my job and livelihood."