An activist championing land rights in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh has been freed after being detained for three months following her participation in protests against forced evictions.
Tim Sakmony, who led the opposition by the Borei Keila community against the demolition of their homes to make way for a commercial real estate project, walked free after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted her Wednesday on charges unrelated to the protests.
The court's judge, Kim Dany, sentenced her to six months in prison but cut the sentence in half on probation reprieve.
She was arrested in early September together with Boeung Kak land activist Yorm Bopha after they took part in protests against forced evictions. They have both languished in jail for three months without a trial.
Yorm Bopha's case was heard separately on Wednesday but the verdict is to be given on Thursday.
Tim Sakmony, who has been defending 106 families now living in squalor next to the demolished site of the Borei Keila community in central Phnom Penh, was accused of making a “false declaration” in an attempt to secure an apartment for her 49-year-old disabled son, who is a resident of Borei Keila.
She has denied the charge.
Her son is a widower and former soldier who is suffering from partial paralysis and cannot speak.
Yorm Bopha was charged with committing “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” in connection with the alleged beating by local residents of a suspected thief who had stolen mirrors from her car.
She played a leading role in calling for the release of 13 Boeung Kak Lake women activists who were sentenced to up to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment in May 2012, simply for participating in a peaceful protest.
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 local rights group 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.
'Erosion of rights'
International rights group Amnesty International has said that the two cases symbolize a "disturbing deterioration in Cambodia’s human rights situation, which has intensified in 2012."
The women’s trial came "at the end of a very bad year for human rights in Cambodia, which has seen a harsh crackdown on freedom of expression amid widespread land ownership disputes and forced evictions,” said Janice Beanland, Amnesty International’s Campaigner on Cambodia.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, welcomed the court's decision to set Tim Sakmony free but expressed regret that she was imprisoned for a long time for a crime that he said she didn't commit.
"I am sad because Tim Sakmony didn't make any mistakes," he said.
Earlier this month, the women charged 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.
The hearings were held Wednesday under tight security, with police sealing off access points to the court buildings.
Outside the courthouses, several motor taxi drivers staged protests supporting charges against Yorm Bopha while residents of Boeung Kak lake and Borei Keila cheered for the two activists.
Reported by Morm Moniroth for RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.