Seven Boeung Kak lake activists, all of them women, were convicted and sentenced to one year in prison yesterday – just a day after being arrested during a protest. Five of them were members of the so-called “Boeung Kak 13” imprisoned in similar circumstances in 2012.
Yesterday’s decision sparked outrage from rights groups, who drew comparisons to that case.
“I sentence them each to one year in prison and fine them 2 million riel [about $500],” Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge Mong Mony Sorphea announced after a trial that lasted less than four hours.
The women’s case began at about 3pm after they were charged under Article 78 of the Traffic Law for using a wooden bed to block Monivong Boulevard outside Phnom Penh’s City Hall. The penalties are the maximum that can be given under the law.
The seven are Tep Vanny, Nget Khun, Kong Chantha, Bo Chhorvy, Phan Chhunreth, Norng Sreng and Song Srey Leap.
Vanny, Khun, Chantha, Chhunreth and Srey Leap were among the 13 imprisoned for more than a month after a whirlwind three-hour trial in 2012. On that occasion, they had been arrested two days earlier for protesting.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said he was shocked at yesterday’s trial and verdict. He added that he felt ashamed at how his country’s courts were acting.
“Cambodia’s courts are not justice for all, they are not independent,” he said. “The government is using the courts. The courts have no spirit.”
The defendants yesterday gave testimony but presented no witnesses. During her brief statement, Vanny admitted that the activists had brought the bed to the protest.
“We carried it as a symbol that our homes and villages have flooded and we have nowhere to stay,” she said. “But we did not block traffic.”
Nhem Sao Nol, Daun Penh police deputy chief, disagreed when giving evidence for the prosecution. The protesters had intentionally caused a traffic jam, he said.
A traffic police officer who gave testimony accused the defendants of climbing up and hanging from a crane.
After just a few hours, the prosecutor, Seang Sok, said that the court had seen enough to convict the women.
“According to the evidence, including videos and photos that show illegal activity, I ask the judge to punish them,” he said.
When the judge handed down his verdict, cries of “injustice” could be heard from the women.
“Why did you open this hearing if you are just going to listen to the accusations and give us the maximum penalty?” Vanny screamed.
Ham Sunrith, the women’s lawyer, said that under the strike law, the women had every right to peacefully demonstrate.
“Authorities can … temporarily arrest them until the protest disperses, but they cannot imprison them,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, from rights group Licadho, said his NGO deeply regretted the verdict.
“The people need the authorities to help,” he said, referring to the flooding that villagers blame on the filling in of Boeung Kak lake. “This is their response.”
Four other people – three activists and Suen Hai, a monk – were arrested outside the court during a morning protest.
The Boeung Kak community has battled authorities for years over the eviction of thousands of families to make way for a government-linked development that has yet to materialise.
Only several dozen families are still waiting for land titles owed to them after Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2011 reclaimed part of the concession awarded to ruling party Senator Lao Meng Khin’s Shukaku company in 2007.
One of those imprisoned yesterday, Nget Khun, a woman in her seventies, last month watched municipal authorities mark out land for her long-awaited title.
“I won’t stop protesting until City Hall resolves the land disputes for all the families in Boeung Kak,” she said at the time. She has yet to receive the document.
Protesters, led by Vanny, have broadened their activism to encompass a range of disputes, earning them the contemptuous title of “professional protesters” from authorities.
Just last week, Vanny and others were involved in a protest in Koh Kong province supporting villagers in dispute with Ly Yong Phat’s Special Economic Zone, blocking a busy bridge before a clash with police.
When the Boeung Kak 13 were released, their convictions remained. Their sentences, all at least two years, were suspended. This led rights groups, including Licadho and the HRTF, to suggest the women remained “at continued threat of re-arrest”.
Despite this, many have continued to protest. Four of those convicted yesterday – Vanny, Chhunreth, Chhorvy and Srey Leap – were briefly arrested in January during a ban on public demonstrations.
The 13’s imprisonment in 2012 earned the government a large dose of criticism and gained international attention. Less than two weeks before the group’s appeal, Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, used a private meeting to urge Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to release the women.
Phearum, from HRTF, said he hoped similar support would be shown over coming days and weeks.
“It will begin with Cambodians and then spread,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL