Using the courts and legal system, governments and private corporations are intensifying the persecution of land rights activists in the Mekong region.
Land rights activists face different forms of harassment to discourage them from continuing their advocacy. In the Mekong Region, where large-scale land grabbing has displaced thousands in the past decade, judicial harassment is increasingly being employed by governments and private individuals and entities alike to silence resistance to projects which threaten to evict entire communities from their homes and sources of livelihood.
Cambodia: Legal system as muzzle
In Cambodia, where more than two million hectares of agricultural land has been given away to both domestic and foreign investors through economic land concessions, the judicial system, according to human rights group Licadho, “is used as a muzzle against those whom the government deems a threat.” According to the group, the rise in the number of land and human rights defenders being “slammed with baseless charges, summonsed to court… and even imprisoned” started in 2015.
August 15 marks the first year in prison of Tep Vanny, a land rights activist who figured prominently as a member of “Boeung Kak 13,” a group of 13 women who actively mobilized their communities against a real estate development project around the Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh that displaced around 4,000 residents.
Tep Vanny and three others were arrested in 2011 during a protest to demand proper resettlement and compensation for the affected residents and were charged with “obstruction of a public official with aggravating circumstances” and “insult” under Articles 502 and 504 of Cambodia’s Penal Code. In 2013, she was arrested again, this time with fellow activist Bov Sophea, and charged with “intentional violence with aggravated circumstances” under Article 218 of the Criminal Code for her involvement in a protest in front of the Prime Minister’s house. She was arrested for the third time on August 15, 2016 for participating in one of the “Black Monday” protests calling for the release of detained activists and for justice for assassinated political analyst Kem Ley. She was convicted of “insulting a public official” under Article 502 of the Criminal Code and sentenced to six days imprisonment.
After her most recent arrest, old cases against Tep Vanny were reopened and in September 2016, she, along with Boeung Kak 13’s Bo Chhorvy, Heng Mom, and Kong Chantha, were sentenced to six months in prison for the 2011 case. Five months after, she was sentenced to two years and six months in prison for the 2013 case, in a conviction upheld by the Court of Appeals only this August 8.
The activist’s legal persecution, according to Human Rights Watch, was intended not only to silence her, but to intimidate other activists. Laws are constantly created and amended for this purpose, and since 2014, Licadho has recorded the enactment of at least six repressive laws “specifically aimed at closing off space for civil society, delegitimizing the work of human rights defenders and harshly punishing expression and dissent.”
Thailand: Targeting women land activists
In Thailand, several local and international human rights groups including the United Nations (UN) and Amnesty International, have raised concerns over the increased harassment of human rights activists, “especially those working on land issues or with community-based organizations.” Rural-based women activists, in particular, have increasingly been targeted by the government especially after the May 2014 coup d’etat, using existing and newly introduced laws and decrees.
Supap Kamlae is currently serving a six month jail term for “trespassing” a forest area. She and her husband – disappeared land activist Dem Kamlae – had been leading their community in the fight for legal title for the land they have long been occupying but was declared by the government as a protected area in Chaiyaphum Province. They, together with dozen other villagers, were arrested in July 2011 and charged under the National Forest Reserve Act. The others were acquitted in August 2012, while Supap and Dem were convicted. The two were released on bail pending decision on an appeal on their case, and after delays due to complications related to the disappearance of Dem in April 2016, the court upheld the original decision in July 2017.
Similarly, seven women members of the anti-mining group Khon Rak Ban Kerd (KRBK) in Loei Province, are being subjected to judicial harassment, and face up to five years in prison as well as a 10,000 baht (about USD 293) fine if convicted. On July 25, Pornthip Hongchai, Viron Rujichaiyavat, Ranong Kongsaen, Mon Khunna, Suphat Khunna, Boonraeng Srithong, and Lumplearn Ruengrith were indicted under Articles 8 and 24 of Thailand’s Public Assembly Act and Article 309 of the Criminal Code for leading more than 200 KRBK members and villagers in a peaceful action in November 2016 to demand community participation in the decision regarding the operations of the Tungkum gold mining company. The case against the seven is only one of the 21 criminal and civil complaints against the Loei villagers, 19 of which were filed by the company, including a defamation case against three of the seven women which was dismissed by the court in March 2016.
Vietnam: Rise in land confiscation and persecution
Vietnam, on the other hand, “has a long history of persecuting anyone the ruling Communist Party deems threatening to its monopoly of power,” according to Human Rights Watch. As of January 2017, the group has recorded at least 112 individuals in prison for exercising their rights to basic freedoms such as to expression and association.
Judicial harassment, however, has further intensified with the recent real estate boom in the country as government confiscation of land for public and private development projects, more often than not without proper compensation, is increasingly met with resistance from “dan oan” or people affected by such projects, despite the risk of imprisonment.
Farmer and land activist Can Thi Theu was sentenced to 20 months in jail in September 2016 for “disrupting public order” under Article 245 of the country’s Penal Code for joining peaceful actions against land confiscation in the province of Duong Noi. That was the second time she got arrested for participating in such actions: In April 2014, she and her husband Trinh Ba Khiem were arrested for photographing and filming the forced eviction of communities in the said province, and were charged with “resisting against those who are on public duties” under Article 257. She was sentenced to 15 months in prison, while her husband, to 18 months.
According to human rights groups, “broadly and vaguely worded” provisions in the 1999 Penal Code are often used to detain, prosecute, and imprison activists and dissidents in Vietnam. Articles 79, 88, 257, and 258, which carry lengthy jail sentences, and in some cases, lifetime imprisonment, are the most often used.
In July 2017, Tran Thi Nga, a vocal critique against land confiscation, was sentenced to a nine-year jail term and five years of house arrest for “conducting propaganda against the government”, a crime under Article 88 of the Penal Code. The same charges were made against Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a blogger and human rights activist. Better known as “Mother Mushroom,” she was sentenced to 10 years in prison in June 2017 for commenting on social and political issues on various social media platforms.
More land grabs, more harassment
The use of judicial harassment against land activists in the Mekong Region has reached an alarming rate. Laws and judicial processes, instead of protecting citizens, are being used to arrest and imprison those asserting and fighting for land rights in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
In a blatant abuse of authority and power, fabricated and baseless charges are made and unfair (and sometimes fake) trials are held in order not only to silence current opposition, but to discourage any future resistance. With large-scale land grabbing in the region showing no signs of abating, judicial harassment against more land rights activists could further intensify in the coming years. ###
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