A court in Phnom Penh gave a Cambodian lawmaker a stiff sentence for on-line criticism of a border dispute and a human rights activists was severely beaten just as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Rhona Smith visits the country.
On Monday the Phnom Penh Municipal Court jailed opposition party lawmaker Um Sam An for two years and six months, while witnesses told RFA’s Khmer Service that security forces attacked demonstrators protesting land grabs in Cambodia.
Local media accounts reported that the protestors were attempting to deliver a petition to the Land Ministry in the capital Phnom Penh.
At about 10 a.m. local time on Monday, Doun Penh district security forces attacked the demonstrators who carried lotus flowers, banged drums, waived the national flag and unfurled banners demanding a fair solution to the land-grab issue.
Protestors and human rights observers told RFA’s Khmer Service the attacks were a surprise.
Am Sam Ath, a senior coordinator for the rights group LICADHO, was monitoring the event when he was severely beaten, suffering blows to the face, neck and head.
‘Please don’t use violence on the people’
“I saw the Doun Penh security forces attack the people, and I said: ‘Please don’t use violence against the people,’ and then they turned the violence on me as a human rights worker,” he told RFA.
The attack came as the victims of land grabs in nearly a dozen communities came celebrate World Habitat Day in the Dey Kraham community in Phnom Penh.
Dey Kraham is land-grab symbol as more than 1500 families were evicted from the area near the National Assembly to make way for development.
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.
Phnom Penh city hall’s administrator Meas Chanyada blamed the violence on the demonstrators, saying they failed to follow city hall’s instructions by marching on Norodom Avenue, where the protest was prohibited.
CNRP lawmaker convicted
While the protestors were confronted by security forces, Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Um Sam An was facing judicial authorities as the Cambodian-American dual citizen was sentenced to a two-year-and-six-month jail term and a 4 million riel (U.S. $976) fine for inciting discrimination and inciting social instability.
The charges arose from Um Sam An’s accusations that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had failed to stop land encroachment by Vietnam and used improper maps to demarcate the border between the two former colonies of France.
Um Sam An was jailed in April after Hun Sen ordered police to arrest anyone accusing the government of using “fake” maps to cede national territory to neighboring Vietnam. The CNRP lawmaker made his remarks as he was being led away from an appearance at the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh.
His arrest and charges came even though lawmakers are guaranteed immunity by Cambodia’s constitution unless two-thirds of the National Assembly vote to approve of the arrest. There is a loophole in the law, however, that allows lawmakers to be arrested if they are caught in the act of committing a crime.
His case has been widely seen as another instance of the persecution of the political opposition by the ruling CPP.
Choung Chou Ngy, a lawyer for Um Sam An, said the trial violated legal procedures because the lawmaker still has parliament immunity. The attorney didn’t say whether he would appeal the conviction.
A confluence of events
While the two events are separate they are examples of some of the issues that Rhona Smith, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, faces in her 10-day visit to the country to observe the situation in the country.
Smith, a British academic, is scheduled to meet with NGOs, labor unions, the land-conflict communities and others who say the government is restricting the people’s political rights.