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(New York) – A Cambodian court’s ruling upholding the conviction of a land rights activist on trumped-up charges shows the political use of the country’s legal system to persecute critics of the government, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 14, 2013, the Court of Appeals in Phnom Penh affirmed a guilty verdict on charges of aggravated assault against Yorm Bopha, while reducing her three-year sentence by one year. Bopha was prosecuted for exercising her right to free expression and called for her immediate and unconditional release.

“Yorm Bopha is behind bars because she opposed a crony deal to evict thousands of people from prime land in Phnom Penh,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Reducing the sentences of people wrongly convicted is simply a ploy to take the heat off the government and make its conduct appear reasonable.”

Yorm Bopha, 29, is one of the leaders of long-term protests against illegal evictions of residents of the Boeng Kak area of Phnom Penh by a Chinese company and a local firm closely linked to Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. This and other similar protests are a popular response to land concessions granted by the government to well-connected domestic and foreign companies, adversely affecting an estimated 700,000 Cambodians. Possession of land is frequently achieved through forced evictions and evictions without just compensation, carried out with the help of government security forces and the courts.

Yorm Bopha was originally convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in December 2012, for allegedly masterminding a conspiracy involving her husband and two brothers to assault two young men accused of stealing wing mirrors from her car. The absence of credible evidence against her showed that the charges were a politically motivated attempt to retaliate against her for her activism. She was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, while her husband received a suspended jail term. The brothers were convicted in absentia and sentenced to prison.

On March 19, 2013, with Bopha’s appeal pending, Hun Sen gave a speech in which he declared her sentence a “simple case of her beating someone up.” Eight days later, the Supreme Court denied her application for temporary release while her appeal before the Court of Appeals was under consideration.

The Court of Appeals convened hearings in her case on June 5 and 14, with her two purported victims providing the main evidence. Questions put to the two men by one of the judges, such as regarding their identification of Bopha’s brothers, elicited testimony that demonstrated their lack of credibility. The court nonetheless upheld her conviction, reducing her sentence by one year on the grounds that nothing implicated Bopha in directly attacking anyone.

The Yorm Bopha case reflects a pattern of prosecutions since 2012, in which appeal court hearings reveal a lack of evidence that civil society activists and human rights defenders have committed any cognizable criminal offense, but the judges fail to exonerate them. In some cases, domestic and international pressure appears to precipitate instructions from authorities to the court to release defendants from prison with their criminal convictions intact, but in Bopha’s instance, her prison sentence remains.

“Political interference with the courts is pervasive in Cambodia, but it is particularly prevalent in land dispute cases,” Adams said.

Cultivators attempting to contest allegedly illegal state-linked corporate land seizures in Sihanoukville and Koh Kong province recently told Human Rights Watch that leading local officials had explicitly warned them not to expect justice from the courts, explaining that court decisions are based on political and economic influence, not evidence and law.

Human Rights Watch called on Cambodia’s donors to press for Bopha’s release and for the criminal charges to be dropped.

“Donors need to speak out on behalf of activists fighting for human rights in Cambodia,” Adams said. “If they do, Cambodia’s poor may have a chance for justice.”

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