Ten women housing rights defenders and a Buddhist monk, all jailed after short summary trials and some suffering from serious health issues, must be released immediately and unconditionally, Amnesty international said ahead of their appeal hearing on 22 January.
The 11 were arrested after two related peaceful protests in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh in November last year.
“These activists are victims of the Cambodian authorities’ relentless crackdown on peaceful protests – they should never have been prosecuted in the first place, let alone jailed,” said Janice Beanland, Amnesty International’s Campaigner on Cambodia.
“The cynical use of a range of laws and the courts to intimidate and punish people for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly must end. The Appeals Court should take the opportunity tomorrow to quash the charges against the 11 activists and release them immediately and unconditionally.”
Seven of the women, from Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak community, were arrested on 10 November 2014 after pulling a bed frame into the road near City Hall as a symbolic act of protest against the authorities’ apparent inaction over flooding in their neighbourhood. They were charged the next day for obstructing traffic under the Traffic Law, and sentenced to one year in prison after a trial lasting less than three hours.
Thousands of people have been forcibly evicted from on and around Boeung Kak lake in Phnom Penh since 2007, when the government leased their land to a company for development.
The three other women – two from Boeung Kak and one from Thmor Kol another community at risk of forced eviction – and a Buddhist monk, were arrested after staging a peaceful protest outside the Phnom Penh Municipal court to call for the seven women’s release during their trial on 11 November. They were charged the next day, 12 November, with “obstructing a public official” and also imprisoned for a year after a summary trial.
The women are between 28 and 75 years old. At least two suffer from serious health problems – one is still bleeding from a miscarriage that she suffered shortly before her arrest. All of the women were either breadwinners or cared for children and their unfair imprisonment has had a grave impact on their families.
“Pending their release, those suffering from health problems must be granted access to adequate health care by doctors of their choice,” said Janice Beanland.
Cambodia has a long track record of using its highly politicized legal system to target and imprison activists, including for peaceful protests.
The appeal hearing takes place during the final visit of Surya Subedi, the current UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, who has frequently raised concerns over the judiciary’s lack of independence and the need for meaningful reform.
“The Cambodian authorities cannot expect anyone to consider these cases in isolation – they are part of a familiar pattern of the authorities lashing out at critics and violating the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, often violently,” said Janice Beanland.
“Cambodia’s development partners must demand the release of the 11 activists and remind the government of its binding international legal obligation to respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”
The seven women arrested on 10 November 2014 are Nget Khun, Tep Vanny, Song Srey Leap, Kong Chantha, Phan Chhunreth, Po Chorvy and Nong Sreng. The three women arrested on 11 November are Heng Pich, Im Srey Touch and Phuong Sopheap, and the Buddhist monk is Soeung Hai. They are all held at the Prey Sar Correction Center on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Thousands of people have been forcibly evicted from their homes on and around Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake since 2007, when the land was leased to a company for development. The Prime Minister allocated land for onsite housing for the more than 900 families who remained in 2011. Most of those families have now received land titles but protests have continued for the dozens excluded. The former lake was also filled in with sand, which has led to serious flooding in the neighbourhood during periods of heavy rain.
Women from Boeung Kak have been at the forefront of the community’s campaigning to secure land titles for residents and to draw attention to other social issues. Like leaders of many other communities affected by Cambodia’s land crisis, Boeung Kak representatives have faced arrest and jail on a number of occasions for their peaceful activism.
The latest prosecutions are reminiscent of the speed of the legal proceedings in May 2012, when 13 women housing rights defenders, including five of those jailed last November – Nget Khun, Tep Vanny, Song Srey Leap, Kong Chantha, Phan Chhunreth – were arrested during another peaceful protest. They were sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison after a summary trial but released the next month after domestic and international outcry.
The human right to freedom of peaceful assembly is provided for under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a state party, and Cambodia’s Constitution.
The Cambodian authorities are legally obliged to respect, protect and facilitate the exercise of this right. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has noted that “the free flow of traffic should not automatically take precedence over freedom of peaceful assembly” and stated that “spaces in the vicinity of iconic buildings … should also be considered public space, and peaceful assemblies should be allowed to take place in those locations.”
On 22 January, the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal heard appeals in two cases concerning 10 wrongfully convicted women land rights activists and one Buddhist monk. After hastily conducting the two hearings in just over four hours today, the Court of Appeal will announce a verdict in both cases on January 26, 2015 at 8 a.m
In the first case, Nget Khun, Tep Vanny, Song Srey Leap, Kong Chantha, Phan Chhunreth, Po Chorvy, and Nong Sreng, all long-term Boeung Kak Lake (BKL) activists were convicted of obstructing public traffic on November 11, 2014 and were sentenced to one year in prison and a $500 fine.
In the second case, three more long-term BKL activists, Heng Pich, Im Srey Touch, and Phoung Sopheap, and Buddhist monk Venerable Seung Hai were convicted on November 12, 2014 of aggravated obstruction of public officials and also sentenced to 1 year in prison and fined $500.
Outside the court, over 300 peaceful supporters gathered in solidarity, including Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando.
Inside the courtroom, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Member of Parliament Mu Sochua and UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi were in attendance. Representatives from the UK, German, U.S., Swedish, and Australian embassies, the European Union, Human Rights Watch, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) and UN Women in Cambodia were also present.