Zsombor Peter and Khuin Narim, The Cambodia Daily, Jun. 29 2012
The plight of the 13 jailed Boeung Kak protestors was high on the agenda for newly inaugurated US Ambassador Willliam Todd when he met for the first time with Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong yesterday morning.
The meeting between Todd, who took up his post in April, and Namhong lasted just half an hour and coincided with the appeal hearing that saw the 13 Boeung Kak activists freed.
Speaking with reporters after the brief meet, Todd said he was watching the case closely.
“We will be keeping our fingers crossed, and we are waiting to see what will happen. But we are hopeful there will be a positive outcome and the 13 people will be released,” Todd said.
Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh told reporters that the US continued to express concern at the escalating situation of land disputes in Cambodia.
“We believe that Cambodia should define a clear set of property rights that all people can understand and know what their property rights are,” he said, reminding reporters of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call for the 13 to be released.
Also up for discussion yesterday was the US$400 million in Lon Nol-era debt that Cambodia still owes the US.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Koung told reporters that Namhong had requested that Todd renew moves to cancel the debt.
“The deputy prime minister asked the US to send delegates to Cambodia to discuss more with their Cambodian counterparts to find a solution that both parties can accept,” he said.
McIntosh said the debt was a longstanding bilateral issue.
“Under international law, governments are generally responsible for the obligations of their predecessors,” he said.
“We have proposed a process for resolving this issue and urge the Cambodian government to accept this offer. Clearing its arrears would enhance Cambodia’s credit-worthiness and ability to access international capital markets,” he added.
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 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.
Much of yesterday’s appeal centred on what involvement they had in a “press conference” at Boeung Kak on May 22, the day of their arrest.
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.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A Cambodian appeals court Wednesday ordered the release of 13 women who had been sentenced to 2Â½ years in prison for protesting their eviction from their homes without adequate compensation, in a case that was widely seen as an example of injustice.
The women cheered in the courtroom, their supporters applauded and observers from foreign embassies, including the United States, smiled in the audience after the judge’s ruling. Local and foreign human rights groups hailed the women’s freedom, but said the court also should have overturned their guilty verdicts.
“Finally, justice has been done for us,” defendant Heng Mom said tearfully. “From now on I can see my children and live with them.”
The women had lived in Phnom Penh’s Boueng Kak lake area, which the government awarded to a Chinese company for commercial development, including a hotel, office buildings and luxury housing. Residents complained that they were not given the new land titles they had been promised by the government.
Their joy Wednesday was marred by a clash outside the court between police and the women’s supporters, a reminder of the evictees’ prolonged struggle against a government with little tolerance for dissent.
About 200 human rights activists and relatives of the women tried to gather near the court to demonstrate their support, but clashed with about 300 police and military police who were deployed to block them. Human rights groups said at least a dozen people were hurt.
Judge Seng Sivutha upheld the convictions of the women for aggravated rebellion and illegal occupation of land, for which each had been sentenced to 2Â½ years. They had been arrested when they symbolically tried to rebuild their homes on land where their old houses had been demolished by developers in 2010.
The judge reduced their sentences to time served of one month and three days and freed them because he said they had children to take care of and had little knowledge of the law.
He also said that testimony indicated that they did not resist arrest. They were to be freed later Wednesday after being processed out of prison.
Concern has risen in Cambodia over land grabbing, which sometimes involves corruption and the use of deadly force in carrying out evictions.
The human rights group Amnesty International said the appeals court “should have overturned the women’s convictions, not simply suspended the remainder of their sentences and allowed the convictions to stand.” The group earlier said the original trial was unfair because lawyers were not given sufficient time to prepare and not given access to evidence or witnesses.
A statement issued jointly by 13 Cambodian rights organizations also welcomed the women’s release while regretting that their convictions were upheld.
Shane Worrell and Khouth Sophak Chakrya, Phnom Penh Post, Jun. 26 2012
Human rights groups have made a plea to 22 international ambassadors in Phnom Penh and Bangkok, urging them to send “high level” observers to tomorrow’s open appeal hearing of 13 Boeung Kak women activists imprisoned last month after a three-hour trial.
Organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Civil Rights Defenders wrote in a letter to foreign embassies that international pressure was crucial to the women receiving a fair appeal trial.
“The presence of international observers from donor governments and the international community … will add significant support to calls for a hearing that follows the rule of law and international human rights standards,” the letter states.
It also calls for charges to be dismissed against the women and for them to be released immediately without conditions.
“Should the convictions of the 13 Boeung Kak Lake activists stand, the case will serve as a warning to other human rights defenders and embolden those governments, corporations and individuals perpetrating forced evictions and other human-rights viol-ations,” the letter states.
The women were arrested on May 22 during a demonstration at Boeung Kak lake – from where thousands of people have been evicted since 2007 – and were charged, tried and sentenced to prison two days later without witnesses or a lawyer present.
The women were convicted of disputing authority and trespassing on land awarded to Shukaku, a company owned by CPP senator Lao Meng Khin, and were sentenced to two and a half years in Prey Sar prison.
Seven of them had part of their sentence suspended.
The European Union, a recipient of the letter, confirmed yesterday it would be sending representatives to the women’s appeal trial.
Ambassador Jean-François Cautain, head of its delegation to Cambodia, said the trial was “particularly pertinent to [the EU’s] work within the country” and its focus on human rights. “The EU will therefore be present at the appeal trial,” Cautain said.
Despite recent support for the women’s release coming from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sean McIntosh, a spokesman for the US embassy in Phnom Penh, was unclear about whether officials from the US would attend court.
“We are considering what representation the embassy might send to the trial,” he said.
Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant with human-rights group Licadho, said the trial would be open to the public and his organisation would attend.
“Licadho will be present through the lawyer, [but] as we do with other important cases, we will attend the trial as observers,” Pellerin said.
The United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also confirmed it would monitor the trial.
“Senior OHCHR staff will attend,” a spokeswoman said.
Joining them will be Boeung Kak residents, 100 of whom gathered outside the Court of Appeal yesterday to urge that the charges against the women be dropped – something they are confident will happen.
“We are extremely enthusiastic about their chances of receiving justice,” village representative Yorm Bopha said. “A senior official told us that the Ministry of Justice has made this case a priority.”
In a letter dated May 31 and obtained by the Post earlier this month, the Ministry of Justice urged Phnom Penh Municipal Court to re-examine the case.
The women’s supporters had released 13 birds outside the court yesterday to symbolise each “unjust arrest”, villager Chan Rithsak said.
Seng Sivutha, vice-director of the Appeal Court, and Ministry of Justice officials could not be reached for comment.