Two detained land activists representing communities involved in land disputes in Cambodia’s capital have accused prison authorities of forcing them to sign confessions for crimes they didn’t commit, sources said Tuesday.
Yorm Bopha of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake community and Tim Sakmony of Borei Keila, both of whom were arrested in early September after taking part in protests against forced evictions, have languished in jail for three months without a trial.
The two women had faced charges unrelated to the protests, such as beating up a thief and making a false declaration, which rights groups say do not require pretrial detention at all.
On Tuesday, the women said that guards at their prisons had forced them to affix their thumbprints to confession documents and to wear signs on their necks detailing their “crimes,” according to other land activists.
Chhay Kem Huon, a representative from the Borei Keila community, said Tim Sakmony had called her from the detention center saying she had been under intense pressure by prison guards to sign a confession.
She said the two women were forced to do so because neither would agree to accept any of the charges brought against them, without providing further details on what authorities had forced them to sign.
“[Tim Sakmony] said she was forced to thumbprint her name and made to take photos,” she said.
“Yorm Bopha was so upset that she refused to eat any food.”
Yorm Bopha’s husband Lous Sakhorn also said that guards had forced his wife to accept false charges.
“The police forced her to thumbprint ten documents, but my wife refused, even though knew she could face torture,” he said.
Lous Sakhorn said his wife had threatened to commit suicide while in detention.
“She will hang herself if the guards continue to force her [to confess],” he said.
Tim Sakmony’s lawyer Yin Savath said he hadn’t received any information about the guards’ actions, but said that even if they had forced the women to sign, the documents couldn’t be used in a court of law because the confessions were taken inside their cells.
“And even if they were forced to confess, the crime must be based on evidence,” he said.
Attempts to reach Kuy Bunson, the general director of the prison department at Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior, went unanswered on Tuesday.
Yorm Bopha was arrested Sept. 4 by the Phnom Penh Municipal Police on the orders of the city’s Municipal Court judge. She was arrested along with her husband, Lous Sakhorn, who was later released.
After she was questioned at the court, the judge accused Yorm Bopha of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” under the Penal Code in connection with the alleged beating of a suspected thief who had stolen mirrors from her car. She was ordered detained at Prey Sar Prison.
Witnesses have told civil society investigators that the individual beaten had been suspected of stealing car mirrors on multiple occasions, according to local rights group Licadho, and that Bopha had complained to local police several times, but they took no action.
On Aug. 7, local residents allegedly beat the suspect as he stood nearby her parked car, the rights group said. Bopha was not present and was never questioned by authorities about the incident until she was summoned to court.
Boeung Kak Lake activists have been protesting evictions since 2008, when a private developer given a land concession by the government began draining the lake to make way for a luxury residential development.
Yorm Bopha had also led daily protests against the municipal government to secure the release of the “Boeung Kak 13”—a group of women who were detained in May and sentenced to between one year and two and a half years on charges of encroaching on private land and obstructing authority.
They were released in June after serving more than a month in prison.
Tim Sakmony, a Borei Keila resident, was summoned before the municipal court and was arrested on Sept. 5 on charges of “disseminating disinformation” under the Penal Code and thrown in Prey Sar Prison.
The complaint against Tim Sakmony was filed by Suy Sophan, owner of Phanimex Co., which is developing the Borei Keila site.
Authorities claim that she made a “false declaration” in an attempt to secure an apartment for her 49-year-old disabled son, who is a resident of Borei Keila.
Her son is a widower and former soldier who is suffering from partial paralysis and cannot speak.
Members of the Borei Keila community have opposed the demolition of their homes to make way for a commercial real estate project, culminating in a standoff in January, when riot police were called in to evict hundreds of residents.
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 to build only eight buildings, however, which led to the ongoing land dispute.
Before her arrest, Tim Sakmony led her fellow residents against the eviction at Borei Keila, refusing to leave the site until Phanimex agreed to construct an additional two buildings for residents.
When the company refused, she led a campaign demanding “proper” compensation and additional housing for evictees.
The Borei Keila and Boeung Kak Lake residents are among many petitioning the government over disputes with companies they say have been granted concessions that include land they have lived on for years.
According to Licadho, the government has given away nearly 4 million hectares (15,000 square miles), or 22 percent of the country’s land area, in mining or economic land concessions, in some cases pitting residents against developers and sparking protests.
At least 400,000 people have been affected by land disputes over the past decade in just half of Cambodia’s provinces, mostly after land concessions were granted to private companies in their area, Licadho says.
Reported by and Tep Nimol for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.