Civil society organizations have called for the release of 12 land rights defenders and activists imprisoned for their involvement in land disputes related to the Boeung Kak development project in the Cambodian capital, saying they have been jailed for exercising their fundamental freedoms.
The 30 groups, which include the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Adhoc, and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), on Friday called for the release of the dozen activists—11 of whom are women—in the run-up to International Women’s Day on March 8.
“As the recently adopted United Nations General Assembly resolution on women human rights defenders testifies, women who work to defend human rights face risks and challenges that require specific attention and protection,” the groups said in a joint statement.
“International Women’s Day, held this week, provides the perfect occasion for this government to garner international credibility by affirming the important and legitimate role of human rights defenders, especially women defenders, in the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Cambodia.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, however, brushed off the request, saying the state could not interfere with court decisions.
The imprisoned activists include Tep Vanny, Nget Khun, Song Sreyleap, Kong Chantha, Phan Chhunreth, Bo Chhorvy, Nong Sreng, Heng Pich, Im Srey Touch, Phoung Sopheap, Buddhist monk Seung Hai, and housing rights defender Ly Seav Minh.
Residents of the Boeung Kak Lake community—a settlement that included nine villages surrounding a lake in the Cambodia capital Phnom Penh—have fought authorities for years over the eviction of thousands of families to make way for a development project that has yet to materialize.
They argue that a development project backed by Lao Meng Khin, a lawmaker from Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party, has caused flooding in the community.
Several dozen families are still waiting for land titles owed to them after Hun Sen in 2011 reclaimed part of the concession awarded to Lao Meng Khin’s company Shukaku Inc. in 2007.
Seven of the activists—Nget Khun, Tep Vanny, Song Sreyleap, Kong Chantha, Phan Chhunreth, Bo Chhorvy, and Nong Sreng—were arrested on Nov. 10, 2014, and charged with obstructing traffic as they protested flooding in their community. They received the maximum sentence of one year in prison and were fined about U.S. $500 each.
Three other activists and a monk were detained the following day while peacefully protesting outside the courthouse for the release of their fellow activists.
They were convicted of obstructing public officials, and later an appeal court upheld their convictions, which were handed down in proceedings that did not meet fair trial standards, according to the civil society groups.
On Nov. 18, 2014, Ly Seav Minh, another activist, and her father Ly Srea Kheng were arrested because of their involvement in a land dispute with the Khun Sear Import Export Company after they refused to vacate a plot of land in the Boeung Kak 1 area.
The father was released on bail, but his daughter was denied it and charged with using violence against a possessor in good faith of an immovable property, the statement said. She has been in provisional detention waiting for her case to be heard.
The groups’ statement went on to say that the Cambodian government must demonstrate a genuine commitment to human rights, as it recently pledged to the international community during its last Universal Periodic Review in the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2014 and before another review before the U.N. Human Rights Committee on March 17-18.
The Universal Periodic Review is a rights review mechanism through which all U.N. member states are examined every four years.
“The reluctance of the government to protect human rights defenders, and moreover its active role in restricting their rights to promote and strive for the protection and realization of human rights, represents a breach of the state’s obligations that cannot be tolerated anymore, the statement said.
“In addition to ending the use of courts to harass activists and human rights defenders, both local and national authorities should take serious steps to resolve the underlying land disputes and reach solutions that respect the rights of all parties, rather than silencing the voices of vulnerable and marginalised citizens and further stimulating conflicts.”
The statement issued by the civil society groups also pointed out that Cambodia’s constitution mandates that the government must respect human rights and ensure that the judiciary guarantees impartiality as well as protect the rights and freedoms of the citizens.”
It notes that the international conventions which Cambodia has recognized form part of the law to which trial judges must adhere.
“None of these protections were guaranteed to the 12 detainees, who have been jailed for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly,” the statement said.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the government could not intervene with the court to release the activists.
“The NGOs’ statement confuses the public in terms of power separation between the state and the court,” he said.
He added that the statement has encouraged activists to abuse laws.
The seizure of land for development—often without due process or compensation to displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Myanmar.
International human right groups, such as Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, Geneva-based World Organization Against Torture, and New York-based Human Rights Watch have all called for the immediate and unconditional overturning of the convictions of activists imprisoned for their involvement in protests related to the Boeung Kak development project.