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Less attention for jailed activists

Boeung Kak Lake activists and supporters
Boeung Kak Lake activists and supporters protest along Phnom Penh’s riverside in June 2012 to support imprisoned members of their community. Though 15 were ultimately arrested, only 13 were tried. Meng Kimlong

Less attention for jailed activists

Eleven activists imprisoned 24 hours after their arrests last month have now been in Prey Sar prison longer than the 13 Boeung Kak lake activists jailed in similar circumstances in 2012.

Five of the current prisoners were among the “Boeung Kak 13”, and the two cases are remarkably similar. In both incidents, the accused were arrested for protesting and tried in court almost immediately.

However, by this time in the 2012 case – about five weeks after trial – the 13 women had been freed on appeal. Protests had been impassioned, and the women’s plight resonated with an overseas audience, most notably then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who called for their release.

Some NGO workers have noticed a different response to the arrest of the Tep Vanny-led group this time around.

Am Sam Ath, technical adviser for rights group Licadho, said many other communities locked in land disputes were too busy meeting and discussing their own problems to get strongly involved in a freedom campaign.

“They do not have enough time to get involved and protest for the authorities to release the [activists],” he said.

Ee Sarom, executive director of NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), said the main land-rights NGOs that lobbied for the women’s release two years ago “are still working the same”. But others with good intentions, he said, were distracted by their own projects and financial situations as the year drew to an end and funding from donors was reviewed.

On the streets, Sarom added, some supporters have avoided protests, deterred by the arbitrary arrests and political tensions that have lingered since last year’s elections.

“But there are many more monks involved. And they plan more action,” he said.

The media, too, have covered this case differently. In 2012, the Post published at least 23 stories directly related to the 13 women during their time in prison, compared with only about 10 this year.

Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Research Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said development partners needed to make more noise and “demand the eleven’s release”.

“It is difficult to understand why [the] partners don’t say and do more in these situations – perhaps it’s because they think the government won’t listen or that they will lose influence in other areas, such as trade,” he said.

While no major political figures from outside have weighed in, several European delegates have voiced concerns to Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, while UN rights envoy Surya Subedi has also been critical of the arrests.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he was not aware of any other instances of foreign delegates raising the matter.

Regardless of who is supporting them, the activists want appeal dates set.

Their lawyer, San Sokunthear, said she recently met with an Appeal Court judge who said he was waiting for the prosecutor to conclude his inquiries.

“When the prosecutor is done, he will take measures for a date to be set,” she said.

Neither official could be reached yesterday.

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