Vanny hugs her son after having been separated for more than two years [Leonie Kijewski/Al Jazeera]
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – An award-winning Cambodian land rights defender has been freed after spending two years in prison on charges many viewed as politically motivated.
Surrounded by her two children and hundreds of supporters in the capital, Phnom Penh, on Monday, a visibly exhausted Tep Vanny said she was released without warning.
“The authorities called me out. I did not know [what was happening] and I was not sure whether I would believe them or not,” she said. “I have been in prison for so long and I didn’t believe that they would release me so suddenly.”
The royal pardon, requested by Prime Minister Hun Sen, was signed by King Norodom Sihamoni on Monday. It lifts two separate sentences she received for “intentional violence” and “obstruction of civil servants”.
Human rights organisations have decried the sentences as political, pointing to a lack of evidence. Her two-and-a half year-sentence would have been fulfilled in December.
Vanny’s 69-year-old mother Sy Heap told Al Jazeera she was overwhelmed with relief.
“I’m so happy. It’s like I’m born again,” the tearful mother said. “My daughter has not done anything wrong, but they put her in jail.”
In the months prior to the polls, the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved, dozens of news outlets shut down, and human rights defenders and journalists arrested.
Vanny said the government arrested her in revenge for protesting.
A dispute erupted in the area surrounding Boeung Kak lake in Phnom Penh’s north, Vanny’s home, when land was given to development firm Shukaku Inc. Violent evictions followed and several activists were arrested since 2007.
Mu Sochua, deputy leader of now-dissolved CNRP, welcomed the release.
“Justice has prevailed although Tep Vanny and other land rights activists never deserved even one second in jail,” she told Al Jazeera.
“She is free,” Sochua added. “We feel relieved that she is finally able to provide her love and attention to her children who have endured extreme suffering unjustly.”
For Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Vanny was “a symbol of peaceful activism”.
“[Her release] will send a signal of hope amidst an increasingly repressive context for human rights defenders,” she said.
Yet, Vanny’s release was no coincidence, she said, arguing the move served the government to regain legitimacy in the international community after elections were “widely criticised”.
Sochua said the pardon alone wasn’t enough.
“As delighted as we are that Tep Vanny will be reunited with her family, this does not change the big picture in Cambodia,” she said.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen has turned the country into a one-party state and run roughshod over human rights. Short-term concessions will not fix this.”