Activists head to Boeung Kak appeal with 'no regrets'
Thirteen Boeung Kak women locked in Prey Sar prison since their three-hour trial on May 24 have no regrets about the protest that got them arrested, Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak said on the eve of their appeal trial yesterday.
“All of them are pretty hopeful of being released. All have no regrets and feel they’ve done the right thing,” said Virak, who was part of a CCHR team that visited them in prison.
The Court of Appeal will hear the women’s complaint against their convictions and two-and-a-half year prison terms this morning in front of an expected 500 supporters.
“They are all [focused] on looking strong and dignified in court [today]. Their defence will be that there is no evidence against them and they’ve done nothing wrong.”
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court took only three hours to convict and sentence the 13 women two days after their arrest, but it might take even less time for the Court of Appeal to decide to release them, Virak said.
“It’s pretty clear there is no clear case against them. The court should find that it was a ridiculous trial and that the [municipal] court did not even follow legal procedures,” he said.
Virak, however, was concerned the court will uphold the guilty verdict, but suspend the women’s two-and-a-half-year sentences, allowing them to walk free – with a conviction.
The women were charged with occupying land that has been awarded to development firm Shukaku – owned by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin – and obstructing public officials in aggravating circumstances.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International released a report yesterday in which it says the women’s charges appeared baseless.
“The women were not ‘occupying’ the land, but were merely temporarily present on it. And they were not violent, a requirement for a conviction under Article 504,” the report states.
Family members of the women told the Post yesterday that the convictions should be overturned, but they shared different views on whether they would be.
Ou Kongchea, husband of the imprisoned Tep Vanny, said he was “80 per cent” sure today’s hearing would result in their freedom.
“I believe the court will provide he said.
Heng Tong, the 62 year-old husband of jailed Heng Mom, had reservations about how independent the trial would be.
“If this court decides based on facts and laws, my wife and our friends will be free,” he said.
The women’s lawyer, Ham Sunrith, declined to comment yesterday.
The outcome of today’s trial has far-reaching consequences for Cambodia’s human rights reputation, according to Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee chairman and Adhoc president Thun Saray.
“It will be bad for Cambodia’s image [if the women are not freed] and will say that freedom of expression is shrinking in Cambodia,” he said.
Amnesty International’s Cambodia researcher, Rupert Abbott, had similar things to say in a statement.
“Releasing these 13 women would demonstrate that the authorities recognise their human rights obligations, and have the will to stop the human rights situation deteriorating further,” he said.
Opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua said dropping the charges would restore dignity to the court system and ease the suffering of the prisoners’ families.
“The court of appeal has a great opportunity to show its credibility and accept the request of the 13; to drop all charges and the decision of the lower court on the ground of a lack of a fair trial, as they were not represented by a lawyer and their witnesses were barred from appearing,” she told the Post. “For the future of the children and their families, it is very little they ask for of the leaders.”
Whether this will happen, however, depends on what instructions the judiciary has received, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division said.
“What’s clear [however] is that the speed with which this appeal court hearing has been scheduled is quite unprecedented, and that has created some hope the government realises it has gone too far with these trumped-up charges,” he said.
In the time since the women’s arrest – more than five weeks – some have gone on hunger strike, while their families have claimed their visits to them have at times been limited to five minutes, if not refused.
Fellow villagers Ly Chanary and Sao Saroeun, who were arrested outside the women’s trial and charged with the same offences, have been released on bail.
Seng Sivutha, vice-director of the Court of Appeal, and Ministry of Justice officials could not be reached for comment.
By Shane Worrell and Khouth Sophak Chakrya
The Phnom Penh Post
27 June 2012
Children take part in a protest calling for the release of 13 Boeung Kak lake community representatives in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Meng Kimlong/Phnom Penh Post