An ‘indefensible’ verdict

A Boeung Kak lake supporter
A Boeung Kak lake supporter holds a portrait of a detained community activist during a demonstration yesterday in front of Phnom Penh’s Court of Appeal. Hong Menea

An ‘indefensible’ verdict

Despite hopes to the contrary, 10 female land activists, including seven well-known Boeung Kak lake protesters, and a monk, had their convictions upheld yesterday morning at the Appeal Court, two and a half months after they were arrested and sentenced to a year in prison within 24 hours of their respective arrests.

Although most received slight reductions in their prison terms and fines, it appeared to be of little consolation.

Following the verdict, the jump-suited defendants yelled and protested the “injustice” of the decision in the courtroom before being dragged out and into waiting police vans.

Two of the group – Boeung Kak community leader Tep Vanny and monk Soeun Hai – were not offered any leniency in their jail sentences by presiding judge Nguon Im.

As news of the verdict arrived outside the court, waiting family members, including a number of children, were inconsolable as they clutched portraits of their mothers, wives and daughters.

Thirty-six NGOs, rights groups and unions later slammed the verdicts as “indefensible”, saying they followed an appeal hearing “that was characterised by an almost total absence of fair trial rights”.

The seven Boeung Kak women were convicted on November 11 for blocking traffic on Monivong Boulevard with a bed during a protest the day before, in which they called on City Hall to drain floodwater from their houses.

Five of them – Kong Chantha, Song Srey Leap, Bo Chhovy, Nong Sreng and Phan Chhunreth – had two months shaved off their sentences yesterday.

They were also ordered to pay a fine of 1.5 million riel, about $375, rather than the original 2 million.

Nget Khun, the 75-year-old protest stalwart known as “mummy”, had her sentence and fine halved, meaning she has less than four months remaining to serve. Vanny had her fine reduced to 1.5 million riel but saw her prison term remain intact.

Boeung Kak Lake community activists
Boeung Kak Lake community activists shout to supporters from the windows of the Court of Appeal yesterday in Phnom Penh prior to their sentences being delivered. Hong Menea

During Thursday’s hearing, the judges denied a defence request to show a video that allegedly proved the women had not blocked traffic.

Separately, the three women in the second case – arrested on November 11 while protesting outside the court during the trial of the Boueng Kak seven – had their sentences reduced from one year to 10 months.

Im Srey Touch, Heng Pich and Phoung Sopheap were all convicted on November 12 for “aggravated obstruction of public officials”. Pich lives at Boeung Kak, while Srey Touch is a former resident. Their fines were also reduced from 2 million to 1.5 million riel.

But Soeun Hai, a monk from Stung Meanchey pagoda who was defrocked after his arrest, had his one-year sentence and 2-million-riel fine upheld. Hai took part in a number of protests last year outside the Vietnamese Embassy after a spokesman’s views on the history of the former Kampuchea Krom provinces sparked controversy.

In explaining his verdict and the sentence reductions, judge Im said he had tried to “offer leniency” to older and ill housewives who need to take care of their children. Hai, however, as a monk, had “damaged the national religion”, and thus was not worthy of a reduction in his sentence, he said. The decision to uphold Vanny’s jail sentence in full was not explained.

Outside, about 200 gathered activists and supporters voiced their disappointment at the verdict.

Om Sakhorn, 64, an aunt of Srey Leap, clutched a Cambodian flag as she paced in front of the court.

“There is no justice in Cambodia, please let the ICC [International Criminal Court] help Cambodian people to find justice,” she said tearfully.

Metres away, Nou Chivoan, the 16-year-old son of Nong Sreng, lay on the ground in front of a portrait of his mother.

“My mother is not guilty. Please release her,” he said.

On Friday, departing UN rights envoy Surya Subedi cited the case of the seven Boeung Kak women as one example of “how the courts are being used for political ends” in Cambodia.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH

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