(New York) – The Cambodian Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the trumped-up imprisonment of a land-rights activist should prompt Cambodia’s donors to demand her unconditional release, Human Rights Watch said today.
On March 27, 2013, the Cambodian Supreme Court denied bail to Yorm Bopha, who was imprisoned in December 2012 after receiving a three-year sentence on apparently politically motivated charges for protesting government land grabs that have adversely affected 700,000 Cambodians. On March 19, with Bopha’s appeal pending, Prime Minister Hun Sen gave a speech in which he declared Bopha’s sentence a “simple case of her beating someone up,” for which she had properly been criminally convicted.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling against the activist Yorm Bopha was no surprise following Hun Sen’s public endorsement of her trumped-up conviction,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Donors should not shrink from demanding that the government drop the charges against Bopha and raise their concerns about the Cambodian judiciary’s lack of independence.”
Bopha, 29, is one of the leaders of long-term protests against illegal evictions of residents of the Boeung Kak area of Phnom Penh by a Chinese company and a local firm closely linked to Prime Minister Hun Sen. In May 2012, 13 women who were Boeung Kak residents and who had demonstrated against the deal were arrested, summarily convicted of illegally occupying land and rebellion, and sentenced to up to 30-month prison terms. Bopha was a major voice in peaceful public protests against the jailing of the 13. She helped put the issue on the agenda of then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who forcefully raised it with Hun Sen and other senior officials. The 13 were later released, albeit with their convictions intact.
Before being returned from court to the prison after the Supreme Court ruling on March 27, Bopha called on other land activists “not to retreat,” declaring “no matter what label anyone applies to us, there will be justice for us.”
The government has pursued a large-scale program of providing title to land since May 2012. This has resulted in many land disputes that have been the subject of protests by people alleging that they have been unlawfully displaced, including at Boeung Kak. On September 4, 2012, Phnom Penh authorities, in an apparent attempt to deter protests, arrested Bopha for alleged involvement in a conspiracy to assault a man for stealing side mirrors from her car. She was charged along with her husband, Lous Sakhon, and her two brothers.
The four were tried by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on December 26 and 27, 2012. Despite insufficient evidence to establish guilt, Bopha was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, while her husband received a suspended prison sentence. Her two brothers were convicted in absentia. Bopha appealed her conviction to the Appeal Court, which has yet to set a date for hearings. The Appeal Court denied her application for bail and she appealed for bail to the Supreme Court.
On March 13, a group of land activists, including Sakhon, staged a protest at the Justice Ministry, calling for her to be given an appeal date and be released. They then marched to Hun Sen’s residence in Phnom Penh. They were assaulted by a mixed force of police, gendarmes, and security guards, who severely beat several protesters, including Sakhon.
The Supreme Court ruling against Bopha is further evidence of Hun Sen’s brazen interference in the work of the Cambodian judiciary. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Dith Munthy, is a member of the ruling Cambodian People Party’s politburo and a close confidante of the prime minister.
“A politically controlled judiciary has targeted a brave woman who has had the audacity to challenge powerful interests and people, including Hun Sen,” Adams said. “Donors successfully took up the case of the ‘Boeung Kak 13’ and ensured their release from prison, but they have more to do. The release of Yorm Bopha and an end to attacks on land activists should remain at the top of the donor agenda.”