Legal persecution of land rights activists must end
Yorm Bopha should be released immediately and unconditionally
On December 27, 2012 - The Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Yorm Bopha on a trumped up charge and sentenced her to three years’ imprisonment. The charges against her and three other defendants were purportedly in connection with the beating of a suspected thief, but the real case against her is crystal clear – she, and the rest of the Boeung Kak community land activists are thorns in the side of the authorities, and they need to be silenced.
“With this three year sentence comes yet another stark warning to grassroots activists who dare to challenge the powers that be – shut up or we will lock you up,” said LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge.
Yorm Bopha is a representative of the Boeung Kak Lake (BKL) community who came to prominence during the campaign to release 13 imprisoned BKL women earlier this year. Prior to her arrest she was threatened, harassed and intimidated and told blatantly by police that she was “on the blacklist”, and that she would be “in trouble soon”.
The case against Yorm Bopha also involved her husband, Lous Sakorm and her two brothers, Yorm Kamhong and Yorm Seth. All four were convicted of intentional violence with aggravating circumstances under article 218 of the Penal Code and sentenced to three years in prison. Between them, the four were also ordered to pay 30,000,000 riel (approximately $7,500) in compensation to both victims.
Giving a clear signal that Yorm Bopha was the real target of this investigation, her husband’s sentence was fully suspended and he walked free from the courtroom. Yorm Bopha on the other hand was ordered immediately back to CC2 prison to serve her full sentence. Her two brothers were tried in absentia and arrest warrants have been issued.
Over the course of nearly five hours on December 26, the trial swung from one absurdity to the next. The prosecution’s theory appeared to be that Yorm Bopha and her husband had masterminded an assault on two individuals sitting in a drink shop and had then showed up to witness their plan in action.
There was, however, no testimony presented whatsoever to support this assault-plot theory. On the contrary, there were multiple significant inconsistencies in prosecution witnesses’ testimonies – particularly between their courtroom testimonies and their written statements in the case file. In addition, there was some remarkable uniformity in the witnesses’ testimony in court. For example, they all made a point of stating that the assault weapon used (a screwdriver) had a blue handle – even where there was no question presented to them that would have called for this fact. They also all stated confidently that the fight started at 7:10 pm exactly, despite the two alleged victims admitting to having been drinking rice wine for hours, and two others claiming to have arrived after the fight started.
More importantly, however, every single witness stated that Yorm Bopha and her husband had not been violent themselves, and had been present only after the fight had broken out, and only outside the drink shop. Yorm Bopha and her husband testified that they had been nearby chatting with a neighbor and had come over to the drink shop after hearing yelling. The neighbor corroborated this testimony.
“The fact that there was not one inkling of evidence that Yorm Bopha and her husband had hit or otherwise assaulted anyone should have been the end of charge under article 218: open and shut,” said Ee Sarom, Programmes Coordinator of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut.
“When you combine that with the fact that the supposed victims could not remember who had hit them, or other basic facts, and that every single prosecution witness including both victims gave significantly contradictory evidence, there can be no remaining doubt that Yorm Bopha was the victim of political persecution today,” Said Sia Phearum, Secretariat Director of HRTF.
The guilty verdict announcement sparked outrage amongst those who had gathered near the court in support of Yorm Bopha, prompting a violent police reaction. At least 5 women protestors were injured by police wielding electric shields and batons, three requiring medical treatment.
Yorm Bopha’s conviction comes a day after another prominent land rights activist, 64-year-old Tim Sakmony from Borei Keila community, was found guilty of making a “false declaration” under Article 633 of the Penal Code, despite there being no evidence or witnesses against her presented to the court. The only ‘evidence’ shown to the court consisted of video footage of her protesting at land rights demonstrations.
Tim Sakmony was given a six month sentence. Having already spent 3 months and 21 days in prison, the remainder of her sentence was suspended and she was released yesterday evening to be reunited with her family. While her release is welcome, the guilty sentence appears to be a face-saving measure on the part of authorities reluctant to admit that the case against her was baseless from day one.
We, the following organizations, condemn the guilty verdicts against Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony who have both been declared both prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. We call for Yorm Bopha to be released immediately and unconditionally, for the baseless convictions of both women to be dropped and for an end to the growing harassment of land rights activists.
Banteay Srei Organigation (BSO)
Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC)
Cambodia's Independent Civil-servants Association (CICA)
Cambodian Food and Service Worker Federation (CFSWF)
Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
Community Legal Education Center (CLEC)
Cambodian Worker Center for Development (CWCD)
Cambodian Youth Network (CYN)
Equitable Cambodia (EC)
Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF)
Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA)
League of Boeung Kak Women Struggling for Housing Rights (LBKWSHR)
LICADHO Canada (LC)
People’s Action for Change (PAC)
Social Action for Change (SAC)
Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT)
For more information, please contact:
§ Mr. Vorn Pao, President of Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), 012 534 796
§ Mr. Ee Sarom, Program Coordinator of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), 012 836 533
§ Mr. Yeng Virak, Executive Director, Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), 012 801 235