By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rights activists called on Tuesday for the release of a prominent Cambodian land rights campaigner after a court upheld her sentence in a case which has become emblematic of the struggle by local communities against evictions.
Nicknamed the "women of the lake", Tep Vanny and her group of female activists from Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak lake area have for years waged a campaign defending their homes from a luxury real estate project.
The mother-of-two was sentenced in February to two and a half years in prison after she was convicted of assaulting security guards while trying to deliver a petition to Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2013. The case sparked an international outcry.
Cambodia's Court of Appeal reaffirmed her conviction on Tuesday, prompting protests from Vanny in court who called the verdict as "injustice", according to The Cambodia Daily.
New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch condemned the court's decision and urged Cambodia to quash her conviction and release her immediately.
"The case against Tep Vanny is a blatant misuse of prosecutorial power to punish her for her peaceful activism," its deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement.
"This prosecution is intended to silence Tep Vanny and intimidate other Cambodian activists," he added, describing the charges against Vanny as "politically motivated".
Home to 15 million people, impoverished Cambodia has a long history of disputes over land rights, many dating back to the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge regime destroyed property records.
Between 2000 and 2014, about 770,000 Cambodians were affected by land disputes, according to human rights lawyers.
Amnesty International said in a report in May that Cambodia was using a "tight grip" on its criminal justice system to muzzle activists, including land rights defenders.
It said the case against Vanny showed "the lengths to which the authorities will go to use, bend and break the rules of criminal procedure to imprison activists".
The government has denied the claim.
Amnesty says 42 criminal cases have been brought against the Boeung Kak activists since 2011.
The conflict in Boeung Kak began a decade ago when nearly 4,000 families were stripped of their housing rights after the government leased the area to make way for an upmarket mini-city.
Since then, the lake has been filled with sand and most of the 4,000 families evicted, with little to no compensation.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Emma Batha. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)