Supporters of imprisoned Boeung Kak lake land activist Yorm Bopha surged into the grounds of the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh yesterday morning, screaming and crying, after Bopha's second appeal for bail was rejected and she was escorted to a van bound for Prey Sar prison.
The protesters, among more than 100 who had gathered outside, screamed at officials and banged on the windows of the van before it sped off – with Bopha shouting out of the window. In the streets, others tore a styrofoam “scales of justice” apart before setting the pieces alight.
Bopha, 29, who was sentenced in December to three years in prison, had quietly entered the court hours before, hopeful a panel of five judges would release her on bail before her appeal hearing – a date for which has not been set.
“I think that if the court is independent, I will be released on bail,” the activist said. “I hope to get justice and I will not surrender – I’m going to struggle until I get it.”
Bopha was arrested in September on intentional-violence charges, accused of ordering an axe attack on two motodops in Boeung Kak’s Village 22 on August 7.
Her supporters and rights groups call the charges baseless and motivated by a desire to silence her community.
In a hearing that lasted about 25 minutes yesterday, Bopha said her reasons for seeking bail were a heart condition that required regular treatment and a need to care for her family, including her nine-year-old son, Lihour.
“My husband will put forward four million riel [$1,000] for bail, and I will report to the court when asked to,” she told judges.
In putting forward reasons why the court should reject that application, court prosecutor Seng Bunkheang said Bopha had already been found guilty of the assault and was a flight risk.
In a curious moment, Bunkheang added that Bopha’s was a “special case”.
When one of Bopha’s two lawyers, Horm Sunrith, asked what the prosecutor meant by “special”, a judge intervened to say that Bunkheang did not have time to explain it in detail.
In delivering the judges’ decision some hours later – after a smiling Bopha, with her son on her knee, had held a press conference outside – Khim Punn, president of the five judges, said Bopha would remain in Prey Sar prison.
“The Supreme Court has not approved her application, because the heart condition Yorm Bopha has spoken of has not been verified in official documents from health authorities,” he said. “Furthermore, the suspect was already sentenced to prison by the municipal court on December 27.”
A calm Bopha, surrounded by security guards and fellow Boeung Kak activist Heng Mom, said her fight for justice would continue.
“This is my message to our community: Don’t give up or think that I can’t be freed. We must keep going in our struggle for our land rights,” she said, raising her hand before being forced into the awaiting van. “Struggle, struggle – justice will happen.”
Like many other supporters, Mom was overcome with emotion at the sight of her friend being taken away.
“I hoped today would be freedom day for Yorm Bopha, but this is unjust... very unjust. Why?” she said, crying.
As news spread of the court’s decision, protesters, many dressed in “Free Bopha” T-shirts and some armed with megaphones, shouted that the court “was blind and unjust” and later made their way to the Royal Palace to appeal for King Norodom Sihamoni’s intervention.
During Bopha’s trial in December, her husband, Lous Sakhon, received the same sentence, though it was immediately suspended, while her brothers Yorm Kanlong and Yorm Sith – who allegedly committed the violence on motodops Nget Chet and Vath Thaiseng – were sentenced to three years in absentia and warrants issued for their arrest.
Sakhon yesterday maintained that his family had not played any part in the attack.
“[The court] demanded evidence from Yorm Bopha, but they did not demand that the motodops show evidence that Bopha was involved in beating them,” he said.
Among the crowd at the court’s entrance, on the corner of Sothearos Boulevard and Street 240, was Tim Sakmony, a 65-year-old activist from Borei Keila who spent months in Prey Sar prison with Bopha last year before her release in December.
“We were arrested within a day of each other,” she said. “She’s like a little girl – she has no power to fight against the two men. Where is the justice and where are the human rights?”
Rights groups were asking the same questions yesterday as they called for the Appeal Court to set a date for her hearing.
“The procedural and substantive flaws in Bopha’s original trial were so dramatic, so blatant, that it’s impossible to conclude that this conviction isn’t politically motivated,” Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, said in a statement that also carried the names of NGOs STT, Equitable Cambodia and Cambodian Legal Education Centre.
“The evidence against Yorm Bopha is very weak, with some witnesses admitting to being intoxicated when the incident took place,” rights group Adhoc said in its own statement.
“Not a single witness has claimed that she or her husband took part in the violence themselves.”
Bopha’s son Lihour, 9, was also questioning the justice system yesterday, as he explained that his mother’s absence was affecting his performance at school.
“I do not know what I can do if the court is not independent,” he said.
Thousands of families have been evicted from the now filled-in lake area since 2007, when the government granted a concession to CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin’s Shukaku Inc to develop a satellite city.