Last Updated on 26 December 2012
By Khouth Sophak Chakrya and Shane WorrellThe Phnom Penh Post
People walk past rubbish piles yesterday at the site of the former Borei Keila community, which was the site of a violent forced eviction in January 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
Prominent female land activists Tim Sakmony and Yorm Bopha, who have been locked in Prey Sar prison since their arrest in early September, will face court today on charges rights groups say have been fabricated to stop them and others from protesting.
Hundreds of the women’s supporters from the dispute-plagued Borei Keila and Boeung Kak lake communities will gather outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court to await a decision on the women’s fate, Boeung Kak representative Tep Vanny said.
“We will be there to support our fellow land activists and ask the court to drop their cases and release them,” she said.
Sakmony, a widowed grandmother in her 60s who lived under a staircase at Borei Keila after being evicted on January 3, has been accused of deceiving the project developer to gain an apartment at Borei Keila for her disabled son. She faces up to two years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Bopha, 29, has been charged over a beating at Boeung Kak lake in late August that left two motodops with head injuries.
The government’s decision to release Bopha’s husband, Lous Sakhon – who was also arrested and charged over the attack – and keep Bopha in prison was evidence she was being targeted for her activism, her supporters say.
Authorities have said the women’s charges are unrelated to their frequent involvement in land eviction protests.
Sakhon told the Post yesterday he would attend the same hearing as Bopha and was confident it would end in them walking free.
“I expect that the case against my wife and I will be dropped,” he said. “We should be released, because we did not commit any violence. We hope the judge can be just and independent.”
Ham Sunrith, a lawyer with rights group Licadho assigned to defend the two women, would not speculate on an outcome yesterday.
“The defence teams are ready, and we have gone over many strategies that they will use to defend [Sakmony and Bopha],” he said, before declining to comment further.
On the eve of the trial, more than 150 people from Borei Keila gathered at a pagoda near Prey Sar to pray for spirits to help Sakmony.
“We hope and believe the Buddha and other gods will help free Tim Sakmony,” Borei Keila representative Pich Limkhun said.
With the cases in the hands of judges, however, Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said he was struggling to be optimistic about the result.
“We’ll see what happens. I think the conviction will be there – I think the question will be the sentencing,” he said.
“They will [probably] let the women go and get some kind of agreement that they will not protest again.”
Such strong-armed tactics would be designed to send a “chilling message” to other protesters, he said.
Although this was a strategy that usually worked, the notable exception was in the case of 13 Boeung Kak women imprisoned in May, Virak said.
Despite their convictions being upheld upon their release in June, many of the women have continued to protest vigorously.
Bopha became well known to authorities after protests calling for the release of the 13 women.
“This newfound prominence brought with it the attention of the authorities – she was verbally threatened, harassed and intimidated,” a statement from activist group Free the 15, released last week, says.
In a separate statement released last week, Amnesty International’s campaigner on Cambodia Janice Beanland accused authorities of trying to silence the two activists who had been campaigning for their communities’ “basic human rights”.
“We consider both women to be prisoners of conscience, and they should be released immediately and unconditionally,” she said.
It’s such condemnation that has Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, expecting the court to release the women today in a bid to restore its credibility.
“I believe the court will . . . respond to the many around the world that have criticised the arrest of these women,” he said. “I expect the court will free both women.”
Suy Sophan, owner of Phan Imex, the development firm at Borei Keila that brought the case against Sakmony, said she believed a simple solution could be found.
“[Sakmony] will be released if she admits her mistake,” she said.