By Zsombor Peter, The Cambodia Daily, 06 November 2013
Faced with a series of longstanding, unresolved land disputes in the capital such as those at Boeung Kak lake and Borei Keila, City Hall said yesterday that its cadastral office is changing directors.
The move came as City Hall yesterday renewed as yet unfulfilled pledges to find solutions for the evictees of one of those high-profile disputes.
Phnom Penh municipal spokesman Long Dimanche said that Chhay Rithisen, director of the city’s Department of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, will be replaced by his deputy director, Chea Srun.
Dimanche did not provide a reason for the replacement.
When contacted, Srun stressed that the official nomination was yet to be made. “I do not know whether it is true or not,” he said.
Chhay Rithisen could not be reached for comment.
Am Sam Ath, director of technical investigations at rights group Licadho, said that while replacing government and ministry officials was standard procedure, he believed that in Rithisen’s case the change was linked to the land-dispute deadlock.
“Many land disputes in Phnom Penh and the lack of a solution are the reasons behind the replacement. It is a reformation of the government,” he said.
Boeung Kak villagers said they believed the land dispute standstill was caused more by a lack of impetus on behalf of those higher up rather than by inattentive land management officials.
“For me, the unsolved land dispute is caused by … [more senior] Phnom Penh municipal officials and government leaders,” Boeung Kak community activist Tep Vanny said, adding that replacing Rithisen was just another bureaucratic way for the municipal governor to postpone solving the problem.
In a meeting with representatives from Boeung Kak yesterday, the municipal governor, Pa Socheatvong, reiterated his promise to allot land titles to those families still awaiting them.
The governor said that 32 of 76 village families would get land titles soon, after their house locations are measured this morning.
“We’ve heard that many, many times,” Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said.
“So far, the ruling party always has good promises, but in the end, they all fall short on the commitment.”
On assuming the role of governor in May, Socheatvong promised to resolve the capital’s main land disputes.
Only three weeks later, municipal authorities unleashed a water cannon on protesters who were blocking the capital’s Monivong Boulevard during a protest demanding the governor follow through on his promise.
Phearum had ambivalent feelings about the replacement of Rithisen, whose office in the past had refused to collaborate with his organisation.
“We will have to wait and see with the new person if he will deliver on the promises and show we can trust him,” Phearum said.
A soldier detained on Tuesday for taking part in a protest supporting imprisoned activist Yorm Bopha remained in military police custody last night, his nephew said.
Military police detained Um Nan, 41, a soldier assigned to the Cambodian-Thai border in Preah Vihear province, after he joined the protest near the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh dressed in his soldier’s attire and carrying a United Nations flag.
Nan’s nephew Phan Pheng, 25, a monk at a city pagoda, said yesterday that his uncle had not been charged with an offence but was interrogated at Phnom Penh Military Police Station.
“The authorities have claimed that my uncle’s actions were prohibited by the military,” he said.
Pheng added that his uncle had been suffering from a mental illness and his decision to join the protest was not premeditated.
“My uncle has been experiencing mental problems for two years. The authorities told me he will be released on Thursday,” he said.
National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito said yesterday that officials had a duty to detain Nan because he had violated military rules by protesting in uniform.
“He broke the law. The law of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces says soldiers must not join political demonstrations,” he said.
Tito declined, however, to say why Nan had been kept overnight rather than sent to a medical facility.
“We had to detain him. But because he has [mental health issues], he won’t have a problem. If he didn’t, he’d have a problem.”
Tito said the man’s commander would provide assistance, which could include sending him to hospital for treatment. It was unclear whether Nan would be granted leave from RCAF.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for rights group Licadho, said that if Nan did have the mental health problems his family said, authorities should release him from custody and military service so he could get treatment to ensure his condition did not worsen.
“To keep using a person [in the military] who has a mental problem is a serious human rights violation,” he said. “Many people could be in danger.”
An officer who asked not be named said military police were considering donating money for treatment.
Another family member of Nan’s, Nhem Phan, 55, from Preah Vihear’s Tbeng Meachey district, said the soldier came from a “simple farming family” who couldn’t afford to pay for his treatment.
According to a 2012 report by the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Cambodians with mental conditions are often left to their own devices or cared for by family with few resources.
“In the absence of functioning community mental health services, state detention facilities have functioned as de facto holding centres for Cambodians with mental disabilities,” the report reads.
World Health Organization country head Pieter van Maaren said yesterday that a number of hospitals had staff who had received a small amount of training in mental health procedures, but a shortage of specialists remained.
“There is little capacity in Cambodia to provide the kind of services needed for mental illnesses,” he said.
Phnom Penh Municipal Hall yesterday defended the actions of police and security guards who blocked protesters as they tried to leave the capital’s Boeung Kak area before they stopped and searched an NGO’s vehicle.
Dozens of Daun Penh district police, security guards and military police blockaded a road near Calmette Hospital as protesters tried to move from their community to Wat Phnom and on to the Supreme Court at about 8am in a march to mark the first anniversary of the arrest and imprisonment of Boeung Kak land-rights activist Yorm Bopha.
After authorities confiscated protest material, District Governor Sok Sambath ordered the combined forces to block a pick-up truck carrying employees of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“We suspect the vehicle is transporting something for the protesters,” he said to onlookers, without adding why that warranted a search.
The Post heard police officers saying they believed the vehicle was transporting anti-government propaganda and unspecified illegal items.
“Some vehicles we’ve stopped before … have been transporting [rosewood], so now we suspect this NGO vehicle is carrying something illegal,” one officer said.
Another officer told the CCHR’s driver that “if you’re not carrying anything illegal, you should let us check”.
Authorities soon searched the back of the vehicle, which bears the logos of the CCHR and European Union, but only found items such as lotus flowers and T-shirts calling for Bopha’s release.
“We’re not carrying explosives or drugs or anything illegal,” CCHR’s land reform coordinator Van Sophath said. “They’re trying to search the vehicle without following procedure. I’m afraid they will plant something illegal [if they check the cabin]. I demand they invite the prosecutor to come and check, then allow us to go.”
It wasn’t until shortly before midday that municipal deputy prosecutor Chuon Narin arrived and the vehicle was searched in the presence of representatives from other NGOs, the EU and the UN.
Nothing more than items for the Boeung Kak villagers’ demonstrations was uncovered and the pick-up was soon allowed to be driven away.
Despite this, Long Dimanche, Phnom Penh municipal spokesman, claimed the incident was an example of NGOs leading villagers on “illegal protests”.
“NGO officials using their vehicles to take protest materials is illegal,” he said. “When they register as an NGO with the Ministry of Interior, they agree not to get involved in politics. Right now, we’re seeing many NGOs that are political,” he said, without elaborating on how protests over a rights activist’s arrest were political.
Dimanche added that the municipality does “not allow Boeung Kak villagers to demonstrate outside of Boeung Kak” but they always do so “illegally”.
A CCHR statement said the villagers had informed City Hall of their plans to protest and were told they had to keep it confined to Boeung Kak if it involved more than 200 people. But they had proceeded anyway, “believing that there were no legal grounds to prevent them from peacefully demonstrating”.
CCHR added that its staff had been asked by the community to transport their demonstration materials – which included flowers and shirts – saying they believed the items would be confiscated if police spotted the materials being carried out. A Post reporter observed this exchange.
“The CCHR team did as the community asked and drove towards the exit,” the statement said. “The CCHR team asked the police what grounds they had to search the van, to which the police responded that the community activities were not supposed to leave the Boeung Kak area and that the CCHR team was therefore not permitted to transport campaigns [sic] material on the community’s behalf.”
During the blockade, combined forces also confiscated drums, flags and lotus flowers from protesters, resulting in a tuk-tuk driver being struck in the head when he refused to relinquish his load.
“The villagers have hired me to take it for them,” he shouted. “If you take it from me, how can I pay the community for losing it?”
At one point, security guards tried to load the confiscated materials into police vehicles, only for the police officers to tell them to stop.
Eventually, officers permitted residents through, allowing them to continue their march to the Supreme Court.
Rights group Adhoc said authorities had “demonstrated grave incompetence” in how they had handled the situation.
“Not only have they harassed an NGO worker carrying out his legitimate human rights work, they have again shown that they are unwilling to tolerate protest,” Adhoc said in a statement. “The actions of the authorities this morning are in clear violation of Cambodian law.”
Borei Keila activist Tim Sakmony, 66, spent months by the side of Boeung Kak lake land-rights activist Yorm Bopha when the two were locked in Prey Sar prison together last year.
To this day she does not believe the 30-year-old mother is capable of ordering an ax and screwdriver attack on two motodops, let alone is guilty of such a crime.
“I don’t believe Yorm Bopha did this. I know her as a kind woman,” an emotional Sakmony told the Post yesterday. “We became friends during my four months in prison. She offered to pay for me to sleep in better conditions. I declined because it would have left her with no money.”
Today marks a year since Bopha was arrested by plainclothes police in the capital’s Daun Penh district. She was charged with intentional violence and sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly masterminding a vicious assault.
Bopha’s husband, Lous Sakhorn, 57, was also arrested and charged on September 4, 2012, but walked free hours later as his wife was ushered into pre-trial detention.
“We were charged with the same offence,” he said yesterday. “I don’t know why they decided to keep the woman in pre-trial detention and release the man – I still wonder about this.”
Like many others, however, Sakhorn suspected from the start that his wife – and Sakmony – had been targeted because of their activism.
Bopha became a recognisable face in the long-running Boeung Kak dispute when she led protests in June last year calling for the release of 14 women and one man from prison.
As the usual protest leaders languished in Prey Sar, Bopha went on radio to publicly decry comments made by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong alleging six of the 15 were not from Boeung Kak at all, Sakhorn said yesterday.
“Some local authorities later pointed at my wife during a protest and said: ‘Your name is on the blacklist and you’ll go to prison.’”
Bopha was sentenced to three years in prison in late December when judges at Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruled she had ordered her brothers Yorm Kanlong and Yorm Sith to attack Nget Chet and his cousin Vath Thaiseng.
“The case against Yorm Bopha was entirely dependent on the assumption that her brothers had carried out the assault and yet her brothers were not even present in court to defend themselves,” the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said in a statement yesterday.
Kanlong and Sith – who remain at large – were sentenced in absentia to three years’ prison, while Bopha’s husband was given a suspended three-year sentence.
In an adjacent courtroom, Sakmony walked free after she was given a suspended sentence.
Testimonies in Bopha’s case included those of the two motodops, who admitted they had been drinking for hours before the alleged attack, and those of witnesses whom rights groups accused of following a script written by outsiders.
“At no point has the prosecution presented any credible evidence or witnesses proving Bopha committed – or plotted – any violent acts with respect to the alleged assault in the drink shop,” a statement from a coalition of NGOs including Licadho and CLEC released yesterday says. “On the contrary, a neighbour reliably corroborated both Bopha and her husband’s consistent testimony regarding their actions that evening.”
In Bopha’s appeal trial in June, the motodops contradicted themselves when telling the court which of the brothers had attacked them.
Judges, however, upheld the guilty conviction but reduced Bopha’s sentence to two years.
“The courts did not have any evidence against us, but found us guilty and then kept charges when we appealed,” Sakhorn said. “We weren’t involved and neither were Bopha’s brothers – they have not lived in this village since 2010.”
In a statement released late on Monday, Amnesty International made a plea for the activist’s release.
“Yorm Bopha must not be forgotten during the current political deadlock,” said Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific deputy director. “Her case and that of her community is representative of some of the issues that have led to growing dissatisfaction in Cambodia – unequal development, land conflict and forced evictions, and a justice system that fails to protect the rights of the poor and is used to stifle free speech,” she said.
Others made similar calls yesterday, urging authorities to send Bopha’s case to the Kingdom’s final court of appeal.
“There is no reason for the Supreme Court not to process Bopha’s case and set a date for her hearing,” Ee Sarom, programs coordinator at NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said in a statement.
But Srah Chak commune police chief Khan Virak, whose beat includes Boeung Kak, deflected suggestions that Bopha had been targeted for her activism. “Generally, people convicted by a court always say it is an injustice,” he said. “But I don’t want to comment more.… You should ask the court.”
Bopha’s family has already done that in the hope justice can be found at a higher level, Sakhorn said.
“On August 12, I lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court. One of the judges and a court clerk said their court is independent and doesn’t care about outside influences,” he said.
“We hope it will lead to my wife being released.”
Three villagers including a teenager were arrested yesterday on allegations that they destroyed the fence of a company they accuse of trying to steal their land in Phnom Penh.
The families of the trio from Tuol Kork district’s Boeung Kak 1 commune – Ly Srey Kheng, 70; his daughter Ly Bun Heang, 16; and Hing Chan, 24 – have denied the accusations they destroyed Khun Sea Development Group Ltd’s property.
Srey Kheng’s daughter, 21-year-old Ly Siv Ming, accused the firm of initiating an almost daily campaign of intimidation against three families, including lighting metal drums on fire outside their houses, after they rejected offers of $15,000 for their homes earlier this month.
“In fact we did not destroy the company‘s property. It is not true. The company is the one that ordered a group of men to disturb our lives, to [try to] force us to sell our house. Right now my sister and father have been arrested,” she said.
Police officials declined to comment on the arrests yesterday and calls to the company went unanswered.
Hing Chan’s mother Sok Khouch, 48, said her family had lived in their house since 1982, yet her son had been sent to court simply because they refused to leave.
“We did not agree to sell our house because [the amount offered] is little. We would not be able to buy another house. I am worried about my son who was arrested,” she said.
Khun Sea is listed by the Ministry of Commerce as the chairman of the firm and a raft of other companies including Khun Sea Co, Ltd, Khun Sea Import Export Co, Ltd, Victerny Sea Import Export, Victory Days Co, Ltd (VD) and Pingu BV Korea Entertainment Co, Ltd.
Khun Sea Import Export was granted an 8,200 hectare economic land concession in Oddar Meanchey province’s Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in June last year.
When the Post called Khun Sea’s number listed by the Ministry of Commerce yesterday, a man who picked up the phone said it was the wrong number.
On Ly, a legal official at the Housing Rights Task Force, said the villagers were sent to court after police arrested them over the company’s complaint but were yet to be charged.
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.