Boeung Kak lake land activist Yorm Bopha was sentenced yesterday to three years in prison on charges of intentional violence, sparking protests outside the municipal court in which police allegedly beat her supporters with electric batons.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Bopha, 29, guilty of ordering her brothers to attack motodops Nget Chet and Vath Thaiseng with an axe and screwdriver in Boeung Kak’s Village 22 on August 7.
Bopha’s husband, Lous Sakhon, 56, received the same sentence yesterday, though it was immediately suspended, while her brothers Yorm Kanlong and Yorm Sith were sentenced to three years in absentia and warrants issued for their arrest.
All four were ordered to pay a combined $15,000 in compensation to the victims.
The verdict came after Bopha’s fellow activist Tim Sakmony, a 65-year-old grandmother from Borei Keila, was released on Wednesday night after being given a suspended prison sentence for making a false declaration.
Led away in handcuffs yesterday morning, Bopha said she remained confident she would eventually be released.
“I believe that justice will come to me later. I’m not hopeless for justice, because I did not commit a crime,” she told reporters.
“Please take care of your health,” her husband said to her, gripping her hands and crying as guards prepared to take Bopha back to Prey Sar prison, where she has been detained since September.
Sakhon told the Post he will urge his lawyers to appeal the decision.
Outside the court, the more than 300 demonstrators massed against barriers grew agitated upon hearing the verdict, pushing at the some 100 police and military police sent to keep order, and grabbing for their riot shields.
At least five women, including 72-year-old Nget Khun, one of 13 women imprisoned in May, were injured or knocked unconscious during the clashes, Boeung Kak representative Tep Vanny said.
“We tried to push past the barricades to see Bopha, and police blocked us, then struck some of the group with electric batons,” she said.
“Nhet Khun was shocked by the police’s electric baton on her back, left knee and arms... and fainted.”
Phnom Penh municipal police chief Chuon Sovan would not comment on the incident.
“Don’t ask me. Ask the people who told you,” he said.
On the opposite side of a blockade, members of the motodop association supporting the victims cheered the verdict.
“I am very happy that the court provided justice for my family,” said Vath Sarath, the father of Thaiseng.
Bopha’s supporters and rights groups say the charges against her are trumped up and designed to end her protesting, which intensified after the imprisonment of 13 Boeung Kak women in May.
The judge in Bopha’s trial, Sous Sam Ath, however, said that based on medical and witness testimony, there was “no doubt” that the Boeung Kak mother had ordered her two brothers to attack the motodops.
“The court has decided to issue an arrest warrant to bring [Kanlong and Sith] to prison,” he said.
The reason for Sakhon’s suspended sentence and the authorities’ decision not to hold him in pre-trial detention was because he wasn’t physically involved in the beating, Sam Ath said.
During testimony on Wednesday, Chet admitted to drinking a litre of rice wine with his friend at a guesthouse prior to the alleged attack, which both men said occurred at 7:10pm.
Licadho was one of many rights groups to question the prosecution witnesses’ testimony yesterday.
“They... all stated confidently that the fight started at 7:10 pm exactly, despite the two alleged victims admitting to having been drinking rice wine for hours, and two others claiming to have arrived after the fight started,” Licadho said in a statement.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 21 NGOs, said three of the witnesses called to testify against Bopha had told contradictory accounts of the events.
“It... emerged that one witness had gone for dinner that evening, but could not recall who with due to his state of inebriation, but could however recall that Yorm Bopha was present at the incident.”
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said courts have become tools of the rich and powerful.
“We’re really disappointed. Bopha did nothing. Why is Mr Chouk Bandith, who shot garment workers, not in jail?” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the government was making a statement with Bopha’s imprisonment.
“It’s incumbent now that the international community re-double their efforts to demand the release of Yorm Bopha, and demand fundamental reforms to the Cambodian judicial system to detach it from the prerogatives of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.”