An Appeal Court judge yesterday said that seven female Boeung Kak land activists imprisoned in November for protesting on Monivong Boulevard in Phnom Penh were not actually blocking traffic at the time of their arrest.
Eleven activists – the seven women arrested on November 10 and four others arrested outside the women’s municipal court trial the next day – had their appeal heard in court yesterday, a hearing that lasted roughly four hours.
The judges deferred a decision on the cases until Monday, but not before presiding judge Ngoun Im gave the seven women hope that a ruling could go in their favour.
Barely 24 hours after their arrest in November, the seven women were convicted under Article 78 of the Traffic Law for protesting on the road outside City Hall with a wooden bed. The article relates to “obstruction” of traffic and carries a maximum one year in prison – which the women received.
But in refusing a request from the defence yesterday to show a video in court that would allegedly show the women had not obstructed traffic, Im said it seemed the protesters had not done so anyway.
“It’s not necessary [to show the video],” he said. “We have photos showing the protesters were on the road but not blocking traffic. I want them to be able to exercise their rights.”
The second of three sitting judges, however, had a different take on events.
“The women were standing with their arms locked together in the middle of the road for four to 10 minutes,” Chan Dina said. “It is certainly possible that they caused a traffic jam. The authorities needed to break this up.”
When questioned, one of the accused, Kong Chantha, defended her actions, which she said drew attention to regular flooding that has occurred at Boeung Kak since the lake was filled in.
When Im asked Chantha if she knew whether standing on the road was wrong or right, she replied that not only was it the correct action for her cause, it was something she was entitled to do.
“This is my right,” she said.
After the seven were questioned, attention turned to the four arrested a day after them outside the municipal court as the women were tried and convicted in a matter of hours.
Neth Sarath, the prosecutor, asked monk Soeun Hay, one of the four defendants charged with obstructing public officials, why he had gone to the women’s trial.
“I did not go there intentionally. I went to Canadia Bank and was coming back to my pagoda,” he said. “I was across the road, in that area, and I saw the security guards drag a woman to their truck. I asked the driver of the motorbike I was on to stop to observe the event.
“After that, a group of guards rushed to me. They grabbed me and punched me, injuring my mouth. I was arrested and we were sent to the municipal traffic police.”
Sarath also focused on whether Hay had attended Kampuchea Krom protests outside the Vietnamese Embassy last year – events unrelated to his arrest.
“Yes, I did. Many times,” he said, of the protests in which Vietnamese flags were sometimes burned.
The defence lawyer, Chin Lyda, said witnesses, photos and videos did not show the four breaking the law outside the Municipal Court trial.
“My clients … were standing on the footpath, not the road,” he said. “They did not have weapons. How did my client obstruct the public officers?”
But, he added, photos and videos showed “security guards inflicting violence on my clients”.
Sarath, however, said he could not accept the defendants’ answers and they came to the court that day with the intention of causing trouble.
“Witnesses and the judicial police have confirmed in writing that the defendants absolutely did insult them and obstruct them,” he said.
Surya Subedi, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, attended yesterday’s hearing but declined to comment in any detail to reporters.
Outside the court, protesters – a mix of monks and villagers – held signs of individual activists; in some cases, the signs were carried by defendants’ family members.
Not necessarily divided, but on opposite sides of the road, Yorm Bopha’s group and Bov Sophea’s group chanted for their representatives’ release. Police presence was minimal.