Cambodian king pardons imprisoned land rights activists

A prominent leader of Cambodia's land rights movement and three female activists imprisoned with her were freed Monday under a royal pardon.

The pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen came less than a week after the second anniversary of Tep Vanny's imprisonment on a charge of aggravated intentional violence in connection with a March 2013 protest outside Hun Sen's residence.

Tep Vanny led protests against evictions from the capital's Boeng Kak lake shore community, where the government granted a land concession to a Cambodian tycoon and a Chinese company to develop a luxury residential and commercial community.

Rights groups called the case against her and the other Boeng Kak activists an injustice.

Tep Vanny's return home Monday night was broadcast live on a colleague's Facebook page, showing her friends cheering her freedom and shouting that she was a hero.

She received blessings from a Buddhist monk and thanked her guests for their support.

No reason was specified for the pardons, but they came just days after a sweeping election victory by Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party was officially certified. The polls were heavily criticized as unfair because the only credible opposition party was dissolved by court order last year on a complaint by Hun Sen's government.

Hun Sen has a history of aggressive moves against his political enemies and critics, then softening the blow after accomplishing his purpose and facing international criticism.

"This is just one of many outrageous cases in which the authorities have misused Cambodia's justice system to harass and imprison peaceful land rights activists," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said last week as right groups called for her release after two years in detention.

Human Rights Watch said the charges against Tep Vanny "had no factual basis and were apparently fabricated."

"Trial judges did not require the prosecution to present evidence to substantiate the charges, unjustifiably disallowed testimony by defense witnesses, and arbitrarily rushed proceedings to prevent cross-examination of prosecution evidence," it said.

A joint statement by 162 Cambodian civil society organizations also issued on the anniversary cited humanitarian grounds as well in calling for her release, saying her detention was a strain on her, her two children and her ailing mother.

It said she was being held "in one of Cambodia's worst prisons, where she shares a cell with more than 150 other detainees in squalid conditions."

Tep Vanny was last arrested in August 2016 at a peaceful protest against the arbitrary detention of four human rights defenders and an election official. She was convicted of "insulting a public official" and sentenced to six days in prison.

The case of her 2013 arrest was then revived, leading to her receiving a 2 1/2 year prison sentence in February 2017.