|Yorm Bopha is escorted from the Supreme Court hearing, Nov. 22, 2013. |
Photo credit: RFA.
A prominent Cambodian housing rights activist was released on bail Friday after more than a year in prison, but says she has not yet been served “full justice” and fears she could still be sent back to jail.
Yorm Bopha, held on charges widely condemned as trumped up to silence her activism, left Phnom Penh’s PG Jail after the country’s top court ordered her case re-investigated.
The Supreme Court ruled the outspoken 30-year-old mother of one, who campaigned for the rights of evictees from Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak community, should be temporarily released pending a review of her case by the Court of Appeal.
Rights groups had demanded her unconditional release, saying there was no evidence to support her conviction on charges of taking part in the beating of two men last year.
Stepping out of her jail cell to a cheering crowd of hundreds of enthusiastic supporters, Yorm Bopha hugged her son and husband and broke down crying.
“I welcome the Supreme Court’s verdict ordering me released temporarily, but I have not received justice yet because the Supreme Court has sent my case back to the Court of Appeal,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“I was only released temporarily, and I am not satisfied because I haven’t yet received justice in full.”
She said she feared she could still be re-imprisoned after the appeal hearing.
Call to clear her name
Rights groups welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to release her, but urged the Court of Appeals to free her unconditionally and clear her name.
“It has been clear from the very beginning of this case that Yorm Bopha has been targeted for her activism in the context of the Boeng Kak community’s struggle for their rights,” Cambodian Center for Human Rights director Ou Virak said in a statement.
“While today’s decision to temporarily release Bopha from jail is a welcome step, we must urge the Appeal Court to act quickly and to put an end to the suffering of Bopha and her family once and for all.”
Yorm Bopha’s case has drawn widespread attention inside and outside the country since she was arrested in September last year, with thousands signing Amnesty International petitions calling for her release.
“Yorm Bopha’s case is symbolic of a worrying trend in Cambodia over recent years where human rights defenders face harassment, threats, arrest, imprisonment and worse for their peaceful activism," said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Cambodia who attended Friday’s appeal hearing.
“She should never have been imprisoned, locked up and separated from her young son and family,” he said in a statement.
Yorm Bopha was convicted of “intentional violence” in December last year and sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly ordering an attack on two motorbike taxi drivers she said she did not even know.
This June, the Court of Appeal ruled that Yorm Bopha was not a direct perpetrator of the assault but the instigator behind it, reducing her sentence to two years.
Unsatisfied with the decision, Yorm Bopha took her case to the Supreme Court, outside of which some 100 supporters gathered to await Friday’s verdict.
Supreme Court ruling
After a several-hour hearing, Supreme Court Judge Khem Ponn said the Appeals Court must reinvestigate the case because the evidence was inconclusive.
The plaintiffs’ father, Vann Sarath, who had filed the complaints against Yorm Bopha, said he was disappointed with the decision and wanted the activist to remain behind bars.
“Yorm Bopha is released temporarily only because of court procedures. As the victim’s father, I am not satisfied and it is unfair to the victims,” he said.
Rights groups have said the case is aimed at intimidating protesters from Boeung Kak—where thousands were pushed out of their homes after the government leased to a development company in 2007—and other land rights campaigners into dropping their protests.
Forced evictions across the country have displaced thousands of families and prompted protests and violent clashes between residents and armed security forces.