Boeung Kak lake activists Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea were convicted yesterday of insulting a public official, a sharp reduction from the far more serious charge of incitement initially brought against them, and sentenced to just six days in prison.
The six-day sentence meant that Sophea walked free from Prey Sar last evening, though Vanny remains behind bars over a separate case. The two were arrested and charged with incitement on August 15 after conducting a cursing ceremony as part of the so-called Black Monday protests last week.
But following deliberations yesterday, presiding judge Pich Vicheathor decided instead to find them guilty of a completely different, albeit lesser, charge under Article 502 of the Criminal Code. They were also fined 80,000 riel, about $20.
“How is this fair to the accused? This is an unfair trial,” said Ham Sunrith, the duo’s lawyer, adding that the defence he mounted was based on quashing the incitement charges.
Cambodian judges have been known to change charges midstream during deliberations or on appeal, though Sunrith insisted yesterday that the case should have been sent back to the investigation phase.
On leaving prison at 8:30pm, Sophea broke down, saying she was reluctant to leave her fellow activist in prison. Vanny remains in pre-trial detention after being questioned by investigating judge Nou Veasna on Friday for her alleged role in a 2013 protest outside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house demanding the release of fellow activist Yorm Bopha.
The protests were broken up by 200 Daun Penh security guards and police officials, in what civil society organisations called at the time “one of the most violent crackdowns on the Boeung Kak community”.
Sam Sokunthea, who will represent Vanny in that case, said that her client hadn’t received a single summons for the now three-year-old case and that she was awaiting case files.
While Vanny is accused of “acts of violence under aggravating circumstances”, a charge with a potential prison sentence of three years, court spokesman Ly Sophanna said via text message that she faces more charges still.
“Tep Vanny will appear at the court on 19 September, 2016, because of an allegation of obstruction of a public official with serious punishment,” Sophanna said without clarifying further.
Earlier in the day in Trial Room 1, judge Vicheathor and public prosecutor Keo Socheat questioned the two activists for their use of headless mannequins in their cursing ceremony – two of which were labelled “corrupt officials” and “court” – accusing them of insulting the court.
“You maintain that your cause is to address your land disputes. So why are you cursing the court and corrupt officials?” Socheat queried, also questioning their decision to use that specific ceremony.
In response, Vanny said the ceremony, which she called a “religious” one, was common among Cambodians and was not aimed at any individual.
“It was just a prayer event to persuade the court officials or other officials who used to commit corruption to turn to justice,” she added.
The court then proceeded to show a series of 14 video clips of the activists preparing for the ceremony, conducting it and consequently being stopped by Daun Penh guards.
In response, Sokunthea, the duo’s lawyer, informed the court that the two had never asked fellow activists to commit any crimes and everyone had attended of their own will, which meant that there was no intention to incite.
“The headless scarecrows [mannequins] are not a dangerous device, it is a prop and it is only superstition,” she argued. “It does not affect public order.”
Following the hearing, Licadho technical coordinator Um Sam Ath said the court clearly did not have evidence to back up incitement charges so found a suitable charge to fit the bill.
“This is a serious human rights violation,” he said. “There was no crime, but that would not look right, so they just changed the charge.”