By Rina Chandran
BANGKOK - A Cambodian land rights activist has been released from prison after receiving a royal pardon, having spent more than two years in detention in a case that came to symbolise the struggle by local communities against evictions.
Tep Vanny had for years led a campaign fighting the forced removal of thousands of residents to make way for a luxury real estate project in the Boeung Kak lake area of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh.
The mother of two was found guilty of inciting violence and assaulting security guards while trying to deliver a petition to Prime Minister Hun Sen outside his residence in 2013, and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
Vanny's return home on Monday night was broadcast live on a colleague's Facebook page, and showed a crowd of people cheering her. She thanked them and hugged her children.
Rights groups welcomed the release of Vanny and three other women activists who were also pardoned by King Norodom Sihamoni at Hun Sen's request.
"Tep Vanny symbolises human rights in Cambodia. She was imprisoned for simply trying to exercise her rights and protect those of others," said Sopheap Chak, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
"Her release is very welcome, and will send a signal of hope amidst an increasingly repressive context for human rights defenders," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The impoverished Southeast Asian country has been riven with conflict over land since the Khmer Rouge destroyed the nation's property records to establish a form of communism in the 1970s.
Between 2000 and 2014, about 770,000 Cambodians - more than 6 percent of the population - were affected by land conflicts, according to human rights lawyers who filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court in 2014.
They were forced from farmland for mining and agriculture, and neighbourhoods in urban areas for real estate projects, according to rights groups.
Communities that protest come up against authorities and corporations who respond with intimidation, violence and judicial persecution, said a report by non-profit Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO).
Vanny is the most prominent activist from the Boeung Kak area, where local neighbourhoods and backpacker hostels were strung around the scenic lake before it was filled in with sand for construction.
"Tep Vanny should never have been imprisoned in the first place," Minar Pimple, a senior director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
"As well as allowing her to resume her activism without fear of further reprisals, authorities must quash all convictions against her and halt any investigations into any other pending charges," he said.
The royal pardon came just days after a sweeping election victory by Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party, in a poll that rights groups say was neither free nor fair.