Cries of “We’re free, we’re free” were heard as 13 Boeung Kak lake women were released from Prey Sar prison last night to the cheers of hundreds of their supporters.
Similar scenes of jubilation were witnessed hours earlier when the women cried and embraced each other in the Court of Appeal upon being told they were to be freed.
After a four-hour hearing, a panel of three judges upheld the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s guilty verdict delivered on May 24, when the women were tried in three hours without a lawyer.
But when the judges announced that the women’s two-and-a-half-year sentences would be reduced to one month and three days – time already served – applause erupted.
“We thank the Appeal Court judges,” a tearful Tep Vanny, 31, said after learning her release was imminent. “Because of the injustice of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, we have come here today, but I would like to say thank you for this hearing.”
Hundreds of their supporters danced and sang on Sisowath Quay as news of the women’s impending release, which came at 7:20 last night, spread.
“Bravo,” Boeung Kak villager Yorm Bopha shouted from among the crowd as police officers looked on. “We have won because the Appeal Court has released our villagers.”
Overshadowing the celebrations, however, was news that Bov Srey Sras, the pregnant sister of imprisoned Boeung Kak woman Bov Sophea, had lost her unborn baby after allegedly being kicked in the stomach as hundreds of supporters clashed with police carrying shields and electric batons some distance from the court.
Bov Srey Sras was taken to the National Maternal and Child Health Centre after losing consciousness, her friend Khek Chan Raksmei said.
“Now her unborn baby has died. Who will take responsibility for this? Low or high-ranking officials?” she asked police at the scene.
Police would not comment to her or the Post about the incident.
“Court officials must immediately carry out a full and independent investigation into this tragic incident,” said Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, in a statement released by NGOs.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak said two children had also been injured.
“The convictions . . . must be overturned and Phnom Penh City Hall must act to resolve the Boeung Kak lake conflict once and for all so that this community need no longer be forced to demonstrate for fair treatment at such an incredible cost to their lives,” he said.
The 13 women were convicted on May 24 of occupying state land and obstructing public officials in aggravating circumstances.
The women were accused of brandishing hammers and other tools as part of a group that had tried to rebuild a house on “state” land, which has been awarded to CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin’s Shukaku company.
They were also accused of throwing rocks at police and security guards.
Each of the women testified that their involvement was passive and unplanned – many said they had attended the press conference to give moral support to 18 families who sought land permits.
Song Srey Leap, 24, the youngest of the 13, said the women had attended as individuals and not broken the law.
“Why would the police arrest you if you were doing nothing wrong?” one of the judges asked her.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Why don’t you ask the police?”
Defence lawyers showed defendant Cheng Leap, 45, a photo of tools she and others were accused of brandishing and asked if she had seen them before.
“I am seeing them now for the first time,” she said.
Yorm Bopha said she was one of three defence witnesses refused entry to the court, which left Long Kimheang, a communications officer with the Housing Rights Task Force, as the women’s only witness.
“I saw them singing on the sand dunes, and then the authorities rushed to arrest them [on May 22],” Long Kimheang said. “They were doing nothing wrong.”
Long Kimheang said she had seen some wood and a saw on the ground, but it wasn’t until another group of hammer-carrying men in face masks arrived later that anyone besides the police, who carried sticks, were armed, she said.
She did not believe the masked men were associated with the women.
In his concluding statement, Soung Sophal, a lawyer for Phnom Penh City Hall, who sat alongside the prosecutor, maintained the women were guilty.
“I ask the presiding judge to uphold the verdict,” he said.
Presiding judge Seng Sivutha did so, saying the women’s claims were not backed by evidence and they had “admitted” to supporting the 18 families trying to “rebuild their homes”.
The court reduced their sentences, because many of them had children.
“It means all of you are free today,” Seng Sivutha said.
Dr Pung Chhiv Kek, president of rights group Licadho, said it was important the women had been released.
“I feel happy for the 13, because today they can go back to their families, but I feel sorry, because what I wish to see is the [court] drop the charges,” she said.
Kek hoped charges will also be dropped against Ly Chanary and Sao Sareoun, two Boeung Kak villagers arrested outside the women’s trial on May 24 and subsequently released on bail.
“I hope they will just let this case [be] gone,” she said.
“Now prosecutors should immediately drop the charges against the remaining two Boeung Kak lake activists whose cases have yet to come to trial.”
Opposition Sam Rainsy party lawmaker Mu Sochua, emailing from the US, was not concerned that the women’s convictions remained.
“The guilty verdict means nothing – justice has prevailed,” she said. “When a justice system does not work, it is us, the people, who are moral judges to define justice for those who are guilty of no crimes.”
Sochua said she wished she was in Cambodia to celebrate – something the 13 planned to do last night, Tep Vanny’s husband Ou Kongchea said.
They would hold a party with their family and friends, he said, when they returned home.