Borei Keila activist Tim Sakmony, 66, spent months by the side of Boeung Kak lake land-rights activist Yorm Bopha when the two were locked in Prey Sar prison together last year.
To this day she does not believe the 30-year-old mother is capable of ordering an ax and screwdriver attack on two motodops, let alone is guilty of such a crime.
“I don’t believe Yorm Bopha did this. I know her as a kind woman,” an emotional Sakmony told the Post yesterday. “We became friends during my four months in prison. She offered to pay for me to sleep in better conditions. I declined because it would have left her with no money.”
Today marks a year since Bopha was arrested by plainclothes police in the capital’s Daun Penh district. She was charged with intentional violence and sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly masterminding a vicious assault.
Bopha’s husband, Lous Sakhorn, 57, was also arrested and charged on September 4, 2012, but walked free hours later as his wife was ushered into pre-trial detention.
“We were charged with the same offence,” he said yesterday. “I don’t know why they decided to keep the woman in pre-trial detention and release the man – I still wonder about this.”
Like many others, however, Sakhorn suspected from the start that his wife – and Sakmony – had been targeted because of their activism.
Bopha became a recognisable face in the long-running Boeung Kak dispute when she led protests in June last year calling for the release of 14 women and one man from prison.
As the usual protest leaders languished in Prey Sar, Bopha went on radio to publicly decry comments made by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong alleging six of the 15 were not from Boeung Kak at all, Sakhorn said yesterday.
“Some local authorities later pointed at my wife during a protest and said: ‘Your name is on the blacklist and you’ll go to prison.’”
Bopha was sentenced to three years in prison in late December when judges at Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruled she had ordered her brothers Yorm Kanlong and Yorm Sith to attack Nget Chet and his cousin Vath Thaiseng.
“The case against Yorm Bopha was entirely dependent on the assumption that her brothers had carried out the assault and yet her brothers were not even present in court to defend themselves,” the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said in a statement yesterday.
Kanlong and Sith – who remain at large – were sentenced in absentia to three years’ prison, while Bopha’s husband was given a suspended three-year sentence.
In an adjacent courtroom, Sakmony walked free after she was given a suspended sentence.
Testimonies in Bopha’s case included those of the two motodops, who admitted they had been drinking for hours before the alleged attack, and those of witnesses whom rights groups accused of following a script written by outsiders.
“At no point has the prosecution presented any credible evidence or witnesses proving Bopha committed – or plotted – any violent acts with respect to the alleged assault in the drink shop,” a statement from a coalition of NGOs including Licadho and CLEC released yesterday says. “On the contrary, a neighbour reliably corroborated both Bopha and her husband’s consistent testimony regarding their actions that evening.”
In Bopha’s appeal trial in June, the motodops contradicted themselves when telling the court which of the brothers had attacked them.
Judges, however, upheld the guilty conviction but reduced Bopha’s sentence to two years.
“The courts did not have any evidence against us, but found us guilty and then kept charges when we appealed,” Sakhorn said. “We weren’t involved and neither were Bopha’s brothers – they have not lived in this village since 2010.”
In a statement released late on Monday, Amnesty International made a plea for the activist’s release.
“Yorm Bopha must not be forgotten during the current political deadlock,” said Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific deputy director. “Her case and that of her community is representative of some of the issues that have led to growing dissatisfaction in Cambodia – unequal development, land conflict and forced evictions, and a justice system that fails to protect the rights of the poor and is used to stifle free speech,” she said.
Others made similar calls yesterday, urging authorities to send Bopha’s case to the Kingdom’s final court of appeal.
“There is no reason for the Supreme Court not to process Bopha’s case and set a date for her hearing,” Ee Sarom, programs coordinator at NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said in a statement.
But Srah Chak commune police chief Khan Virak, whose beat includes Boeung Kak, deflected suggestions that Bopha had been targeted for her activism. “Generally, people convicted by a court always say it is an injustice,” he said. “But I don’t want to comment more.… You should ask the court.”
Bopha’s family has already done that in the hope justice can be found at a higher level, Sakhorn said.
“On August 12, I lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court. One of the judges and a court clerk said their court is independent and doesn’t care about outside influences,” he said.
“We hope it will lead to my wife being released.”