Boeung Kak eviction case in international spotlight

Shane Worrell and Khouth Sophak Chakrya, Phnom Penh Post, Jun. 26 2012

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Children take part yesterday in a protest calling for the release of 13 Boeung Kak lake community representatives in Phnom Penh. The women were jailed last month after a three-hour trial. Photograph: Meng Kimlong

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 InternationalHuman 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.

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