Time and again, the Cambodian criminal justice system has proven to be an arbitrary construct built and operated at the expense of the many. Against this illusory backdrop of legitimacy resides human beings, individuals with loved ones and lives awaiting them outside prison walls. This notion thundered loudly as Tep Vanny, a mother and a daughter, was asked by the defence lawyer about the status of her family at the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh today. The ensuing display of emotion was difficult to behold without feeling a tremendous sense of remorse and anger at the system responsible.
Tep Vanny has been detained for nearly a year, since her arrest on 15 August 2016. In February 2017, she was convicted of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” at the Phnom Penh Court of First Instance. The charges were based on allegations of violence against para-police during a 2013 protest near the home of the Prime Minister. During that protest, both she and numerous other protestors suffered serious injuries at the hands of the authorities. Her sentence of two-and-a-half-years’ imprisonment and US$3500 compensation to the plaintiffs remains, with the verdict from today’s appeal to be announced on 8 August 2017.
Tep Vanny is not alone. There are many who share similar experiences within the prevailing criminal justice system in Cambodia. In today’s appeal, as was the case in her first instance trial earlier this year, the burden of proof bar was non-existent. With plaintiffs and prosecution witnesses absent, there was no room for cross-examination. The submitted statements of these individuals, read aloud by the court clerk, were eerily similar and corroborated seamlessly one another. However, none presented any shred of credible evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt. And yet, in coming to his verdict, the presiding judge will undoubtedly consider such proceedings to have been sufficiently legitimate. In the trials I have witnessed over the past months and in the numerous cases I have examined, painfully few have demonstrated any semblance of due process or a presumption of innocence. Her case is not rare; experiences with violations to enshrined fair trial rights are shared across the board.
There are also many who share Tep Vanny’s story, those who have had their land violently removed from under their feet and those who have joined in the struggle for justice. In 2014, more than half a million people in Cambodia had been affected by land grabs since 2000, with numbers continuing to grow since then. Tep Vanny was once a resident of Boeung Kak Lake, Phnom Penh’s largest lake at the time. In 2007, the municipality of Phnom Penh announced a 99-year lease agreement with Shukaku Inc., a private development firm. The agreement, which appeared to violate multiple Cambodian laws and international obligations, gave the firm jurisdiction to fill in the lake and to develop it as a tourist destination, in exchange for US$79 million. The ensuing increase in flooding and the destruction of homes led to thousands of evictions, with only a small minority of people willingly accepting meagre compensation and many being forcibly removed and given nothing.
This struggle led to the emergence of an incredibly brave group of Boeung Kak Lake land activists who have been taking action against the authorities since. Tep Vanny has become one of the most prominent and outspoken of these activists, along with a number of other women, including 78-year old Nget Khun. I have had the privilege of speaking with Nget Khun on multiple occasions and visited her at Boeung Kak Lake last month to discuss development in the country. Speaking in Khmer, she said, “We do not reject development, but development should provide appropriate compensation and homes and family happiness.” As she was a witness for the defence in today’s appeal, her sentiment rang clearly in my mind. The continued imprisonment of an outspoken mother on spurious charges for defending her illegitimately assaulted community is not development but utter decline and injustice.
To reiterate, Tep Vanny is not alone. She shares with many others her suffered abuses at the hands of the Cambodian criminal justice system and she shares her story with the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have been affected by unjust land grabs and evictions. Today, her usually isolated post-trial march down the courthouse halls was done with arms around her two children, who were finally allowed into the courtroom as the two-and-a-half-hour appeal came to a close. However, to ensure she did not forget where she was going and who she had upset, eight officers surrounded them, escorting her quickly away from her family into the police vehicle to take her far from home.