A 65-year-old woman who has spent months sleeping under a staircase at Borei Keila yesterday became the second land-rights activist sent to Prey Sar prison in little more than 24 hours.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigating judge Ly Leabmeng questioned villager representative Tim Sakmony for almost five hours before charging her with incitement and ordering her to be locked in pre-trial detention, her defence team said.
“This court doesn’t offer any justice for the poor,” fellow Borei Keila resident Ath Samnang, one of about 100 supporters outside the court, said as she watched her friend being driven off in the direction of Prey Sar.
The jailing of Sakmony, who was summonsed last week after an incitement complaint by Suy Sophan, the owner of Borei Keila developer Phan Imex, came one day after Boeung Kak village representative Yorm Bopha was detained and jailed on charges of intentional violence.
Bopha, 29, and her husband, Lous Sakhorn, 56, were arrested by 10 plain-clothed police officers and shoved into an unmarked car on Tuesday while going to check their names on a voting register, a witness said.
Sakhorn and Bopha, a well-known activist, were both charged with intentional violence, it emerged yesterday, but only Sakhorn was released, while Bopha, a mother of one, was sent to Prey Sar to serve pre-trial detention.
Residents of both communities say the charges against their respective representatives are ambiguous and the court has failed to explain exactly what the women are supposed to have done wrong.
Boeung Kak and Borei Keila have become high-profile battlegrounds for housing and land rights in the face of large-scale developments.
Sakhorn said he and Bopha had recently intervened when villagers were beating up a thief at Boeung Kak, but had not committed any act of violence.
“Because my wife is an activist who regularly demands that the authorities demarcate land, I believe they may have used this incident to accuse her,” he said. “Both of us have been charged with intentional violence – but why did the judge detain my wife and release me?”
Rights groups and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party yesterday condemned the jailing of the two women, describing it as another crackdown on dissent.
“Each time someone from Borei Keila or Boeung Kak is arrested now, we have to treat it as suspicious,” Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said. “The court certainly lost some credibility with the arrest of the 13 Boeung Kak women.”
The rash sentencing of those women – after a three-hour trial without a lawyer on May 24 – drew international headlines and the attention of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who urged Cambodia to release them.
The women’s two-and-a-half-year jail terms for their involvement in a land protest was reduced and they were freed on June 27, but this week’s arrests showed the government was still using the courts to silence opposition, SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said.
“It is not going to be just these two – I heard they are targeting more people,” she said, adding Bopha had effectively been kidnapped rather than arrested. “The government is totally going down the wrong track and the consequences will be detrimental to the image of Cambodia.”
Am Sam Ath, technical adviser for rights-group Licadho, said Sakmony’s arrest was an example of Phan Imex trying to silence the villagers.
“I think the company is using the court system to [stop protests],” he said.
Sakmony was among a group of more than 20 women and children detained during a land protest in the capital on January 11 and sent to Prey Speu social affairs centre.
The women and children were held for a week without charge before climbing the walls, in the presence of Sochua, and fleeing in tuk-tuks.
Sakmony was one of the many Borei Keila villagers evicted from their homes on January 3 when a demolition team led by Phan Imex and backed by municipal police destroyed remaining houses at the site.
Many, including Sakmony, have since spent their nights sleeping under stairs close to a rubbish dump, where UN Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi visited in May.
Court officials, government spokesmen and Sophan could not be reached for comment yesterday.