By Kaing Menghun And Chin Chan, The Cambodia Daily, June 19, 2013
Rights groups have continued condemning the Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold a guilty verdict against Boeung Kak land-rights activist Yorm Bopha, saying that “weak” evidence and “inconsistent” testimony failed to link her to an axe and screwdriver attack on two motodops.
The 29-year-old mother will remain in prison, possibly until September next year, after judges rejected her appeal on Friday, but suspended one year of her three-year sentence.
Amnesty International’s Cambodia researcher, Rupert Abbott, who was in court for the case, called for Bopha’s immediate release.
“There was inconsistency in testimony and really weak evidence. To suggest she was involved seems really far-fetched,” he said yesterday.
Abbott said the presumption of innocence had been missing from the trial, suggesting “outside influences are at work again”.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights said in a statement that it was outraged the “bogus” conviction against Bopha had been upheld.
“The accounts of the alleged victims were often convoluted and did not corroborate,” the statement said.
At the end of the four-hour hearing, judges changed the intentional violence charge against Bopha to a charge of masterminding an assault.
Presiding Judge Taing Sun Lay said Bopha ordered her brothers Yorm Kanlong and Yorm Seth to carry out an attack on motodops Nget Chet, 28, and Vath Thaiseng, 24, last August.
Speaking outside court, Bopha’s husband, Lous Sakhon, vowed to appeal the decision.
“I think the Supreme Court might support all the other courts, but I will still appeal because I want to show the whole world what justice is like in Cambodia,” said the 56-year-old, who was given a suspended prison term last December over the same incident.
During the hearing, Vath Sareth, the father and uncle of the motodops, said he knew “clearly” that Kanlong and Seth had attacked the motodops. But when pressed further he said he had overheard only later that the brothers were the attackers.
“I don’t know who [stabbed my son] because there were many people around and it was confusing,” he said.
In a closing statement, prosecutor Than Seng Narong said Bopha and her husband masterminded the violence but added he did not know why authorities had imprisoned “the woman in this case and not the man”.
Bopha’s lawyer, Ham Sunrith, said witnesses and evidence presented had failed to prove Bopha was guilty.
When the motodops’ lawyer, Neang Hay, disagreed, the usually calm Bopha began shouting, interrupting to demand he solemnly swear the evidence he had presented was true.
Boeung Kak housing-rights activist Tep Vanny said yesterday that her community would continue protests and take straw effigies of “corrupt officials” to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house today, urging his intervention.
Two days before the appeal trial of imprisoned Boeung Kak lake activist Yorm Bopha, some of her supporters went on a hunger strike yesterday to demand her release.
Led as usual by Boeung Kak activist Tep Vanny, the group of four, dressed in white, set up outside the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh at about 9am and laid flowers spelling “Free Bopha” on the pavement.
One, Bo Chhorvy, said the group, all women, would remain there until this morning.
“We will keep striking here until Tuesday and will return again on Wednesday to support and encourage Yorm Bopha when the Court of Appeal hears her case,” she said.
But it wasn’t to be: Chhorvy, who had not eaten since Sunday night, fainted at about 8:30pm, while fellow activist Bov Sophea followed about 10 minutes later.
They were taken to NGO Licadho’s clinic for treatment, while the remaining two vowed to continue through the night.
In her prison cell at PJ prison, Bopha was also refraining from food yesterday, said her husband, Luos Sakhorn.
“My wife told me that she will not eat anything if Boeung Kak villagers set up this strike in order to gain justice and freedom for her,” he said.
Bopha was arrested in September, convicted of assault and sentenced in December to three years in prison.
Rights groups say the allegations against her – that she ordered her two brothers to savagely beat two motodops with an axe and screwdriver – were fabricated to silence her community.
They point to the fact that the two victims drank a large quantity of rice wine before the alleged attack but delivered precise testimony.
Supporters of the motodops have also staged protests, claiming the matter is a clear-cut assault case.
A woman was knocked unconscious and many more fell to the ground when municipal authorities unleashed a water cannon on Boeung Kak lake, Borei Keila and Thmor Kol protesters, who were blocking the capital’s Monivong Boulevard yesterday.
Protesters sitting on the road were met with the storm-like onslaught after more than 100 had gathered outside City Hall to demand new Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong deliver on his pledge to resolve their land disputes.
The spray’s force, from three fire trucks, left Khek Chan Raksmey, 33, unconscious on the ground, while others – soaked – ran or were pulled to safety.
Boeung Kak land activist Sen Touch said protesters from the three communities had wanted to know when the governor would act on his promise to end their disputes but felt yesterday’s incident showed municipal authorities didn’t really want to find solutions.
“If you want to kill people, just use the real bullets, not fire engines,” she said.
After an ambulance was refused because villagers said they could not afford to pay for it, Chan Raksmey was taken in a tuk-tuk to the clinic of rights group Licadho for treatment.
Phnom Penh municipal police chief Choun Sovann said yesterday that authorities had no choice but to spray the protesters, who blocked or slowed traffic for more than two hours.
“I had already told them not to block the road because there are many people who travel along this boulevard,” he said. “We should respect all people’s rights, not just a few.”
Phnom Penh Municipal Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the villagers’ efforts to block the road were akin to “kidnapping” road users and holding them hostage.
“Because of this, we’re obliged to crack down on [protesters],” he said.
The congestion caused by the incident frustrated motorist San Chamreung.
“I cannot accept this roadblock because it affects my career. I know they have been treated unfairly, but this is treating us unfairly,” he said.
But Nay Vanda, from rights group Adhoc, said firing water at the protesters was an extreme method that served only to flare tempers.
“The municipal governor should solve these [protesters’] problems,” he said.
During his swearing in early this month, Socheatvong promised quick solutions to the disputes. He followed this pledge up days later in meetings with community representatives.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said the incident turned the clock back two or three years to more violent protests, just when it appeared the governor was close to taking action.
“We’re really disappointed with the authorities for using violence to stop a peaceful protest,” he said. “They are women trying to find a solution.”
Phearum said the disputes needed to be resolved before the beginning of election campaigning in about four weeks.
“When the election campaigns begin, they know they will have no chance. They were cheated before the 2008 [election] – the previous governor promised not to evict them.”
Dimanche said yesterday that municipal authorities had created a committee to review villagers’ documents in order to resolve the disputes.
“We are asking for time to solve these problems for villagers,” he said.