In the past three days, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has ordered the unjustified pre-trial detention of two female land rights advocates in unrelated cases. These two incidents are the latest in a long string of incidents in which the courts have been wielded as a weapon to silence victimized communities.
The two arrested activists have long been struggling to advocate on behalf of powerless residents involved in land disputes with some of Cambodia’s most well-connected and powerful business tycoons.
On September 4, in the first case, outspoken Boeung Kak Lake community representative Yorm Bopha was sent to Prey Sar (CC2) prison to await trial on charges of intentional violence with aggravating circumstances under Article 218 of the Penal Code. Authorities claim she was involved in the beating of a suspected thief who had stolen wing mirrors from her car.
Witnesses told civil society investigators that the individual beaten had been suspected of stealing the mirrors on multiple occasions. Bopha had complained to local police several times, but they took no action. On Aug. 7, the suspect stood nearby her car. This time, local residents took notice and allegedly beat him.
Bopha was not present, and was never questioned by authorities about the incident. Nevertheless, in a break from usual protocol, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Te Samhang issued an order to bring both Bopha and her husband – a step above the usual summons for questioning. An order to bring is essentially the equivalent of an arrest warrant in that it allows for immediate detention. After minimal questioning, Judge Te Samhang ordered Bopha detained, but released her non-activist husband.
Bopha has been involved in numerous peaceful demonstrations since Shukaku Inc. began filling Boeung Kak Lake, evicting thousands of families from their homes in the process. She was also leading numerous protests for the Boeung Kak 13, a group of women arrested earlier this year on May 22 and imprisoned for over a month.
“Bopha’s arrest is an obvious attempt to threaten people over their recent calls for the demarcation of 12.44 hectares of land that the Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged to us over a year ago,” said Tep Vanny, one of the Boeung Kak 13.
Then yesterday morning, a second land activist was detained in a separate case. Tim Sakmony, a prominent representative of evicted families from Borei Keila, was also ordered detained in CC2 prison on charges that she made a “false declaration” under article 633 of the Penal Code. The complaint against Ms. Sakmony was filed by Phanimex company owner Suy Sophan. Phanimex was awarded the Borei Keila community’s land in exchange for a promise to build 10 apartment buildings for the current residents. The company decided, however, to build only eight buildings, which led to the ongoing land dispute.
Authorities claim that Sakmony made a “false declaration” in an attempt to secure an apartment for her 49-year-old disabled son who is a resident of the Borei Keila community. Her son, a widower and former soldier, is suffering from partial paralysis and cannot speak.
“The charge is farcical, considering that her son is in fact entitled to an apartment in the Borei Keila buildings,” said LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge. “How is it fraudulent to advocate for someone’s rights under the law?”
Article 633 prohibits providing a “false declaration to a public body for the purpose of obtaining an allowance, a payment or any unlawful advantage.” The crime is punishable by imprisonment from six months to two years, and a fine from 1 million to 4 million Riels (USD250 – 1000).
The use of pretrial detention in these cases is particularly shocking, given that Cambodia’s Code of Criminal Procedure states that pre-trial detention may only be ordered in “exceptional” circumstances. The law also states that such detention may only be ordered where it is necessary to stop an offense from occurring, to prevent witness or victim harassment, to prevent collusion among accomplices, to preserve evidence, to protect public order, or to guarantee the presence and/or security of the accused. None of those circumstances are present in either Bopha or Sakmony’s cases.
“Ever increasing is the use of criminalization and pre-trial detention to silence the decent
voices of victimized communities, their representatives and human rights defenders. This
is a systematic, repeated and consistent tactic that is in violation of the fundamental and
constitutional rights of all Cambodians,” said Mr. Yeng Virak, Executive Director of the
Community Legal Education Center (CLEC).
The court should reconsider the necessity of pre-trial detention in these two cases, and independently review any appeals of the detention orders under the specific legal requirements described above. We, the undersigned civil society organizations, believe such a review should lead to the women’s release, enabling them to better prepare their defense in accordance with the law.
Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC)
Cambodian Food and Service Worker Federation (CFSWF)
Cambodia’s Civil Servants Association (CICA)
Community Legal Education Center (CLEC)
Cambodian Youth Network (CYN)
Equitable Cambodia (EC)
Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA)
Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF)
The Cambodian Committee on CEDAW (NGO-CEDAW)
Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT)
For more information, please contact:
• Eang Vuthy, Equitable Cambodia Representative, 012 791 700
• Am Sam Ath, LICADHO Technical Supervisor, 012 327 770