By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, May 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cambodia is using its "tight grip" on its criminal justice system to muzzle activists, including land rights defenders, Amnesty International said, heightening fears of a widening crackdown in the run-up to national polls next year.
Land conflicts and forced evictions are a major problem in Cambodia, with thousands of families driven from farmland or urban areas to make way for property developments or mining and agricultural projects.
In a report released on Tuesday, Amnesty accused the government of "bending the law to their will" to crack down on dissent, and highlighted cases including the jailing of prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny.
"In Cambodia, the courts are tools in the hands of the government," Amnesty's Southeast Asia and the Pacific director Champa Patel said in a statement.
"Cambodia desperately needs a justice system worthy of the name. As the government faces greater pressure from critics and opponents, it is likely to use the courts against more activists."
The government rejected the report as "very biased".
"The court makes decisions based on the constitution and like every open society, the court provides justice to everyone no matter who they are," government spokesman Phay Siphan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Phnom Penh.
"We respect this due process."
Cambodia is gearing up for local elections on Sunday, seen as a barometer for the 2018 national polls and the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen has faced in nearly four decades after his party narrowly won the last election in 2013.
Twenty-seven human rights and political activists are currently behind bars, while hundreds of others face criminal proceedings, according to Amnesty.
Its 31-page report detailed how political, trade union and human rights activists in the country often live under the threat of immediate imprisonment.
The report highlighted the case of Vanny, a mother of two, and female activists from Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak area who have been defending their homes from a development project for years. Vanny was sentenced in February to two and a half years in prison after she was found guilty of assaulting security guards while trying to deliver a petition to Hun Sen in 2013.
Amnesty said 42 criminal cases have been brought against the Boeung Kak activists since 2011.
"The cases against Vanny ... highlight the lengths to which the authorities will go to use, bend and break the rules of criminal procedure to imprison activists," Amnesty said.
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 conflicts, according to human rights lawyers.