More than 200 villagers involved in three different land disputes gathered in front of Cambodia’s top court in the capital Tuesday to demand the release of jailed rights campaigner Yorm Bopha ahead of her final appeal against a criminal conviction later this week.
Yorm Bopha’s impending appeal hearing also prompted international rights groups—who say she has been unfairly targeted because of her activism—to renew their demands for her release, saying authorities lack the evidence to support her conviction.
On Tuesday, villagers from the Boueng Kak, Borei Keila, and Thmor Korl communities of Phnom Penh involved in long-festering land disputes held a religious ceremony in front of the Supreme Court urging authorities to release the activist before her Nov. 22 appeal.
The villagers marched around the court building three times and burned a copy of Yorm Bopha’s arrest warrant, issued by the Phnom Penh court. Police looked on, but did not intervene.
Boeung Kak village representative Tep Vanny told RFA’s Khmer Service that Yorm Bopha’s supporters had held the religious ceremony in the hope that the court would release her.
“We burned the court warrant because the warrant was so unjust—she didn’t commit any crime,” she added.
Yorm Bopha’s husband, Luos Sakhorn, said he had met with officials from city hall seeking their intervention in securing his wife’s release and that they had asked him to add his thumbprint to a document detailing his request, which he said was “a good sign” she would be freed.
“With the help of the city hall officials, I think the court will release Yorm Bopha 100 percent,” he said.
Yorm Bopha, a 30-year-old mother of one, and a longtime activist for members of the Boeung Kak Lake community displaced to make way for a real estate development, has been held since Sept. 4 last year when she was arrested in connection with a skirmish that broke out near her home.
The activist, who has been named an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, is serving a two-year prison term for causing “intentional violence” in a case rights groups say has seen flagrant legal violations and was aimed at intimidating her and other activists into silence.
In June, Cambodia’s Court of Appeals suspended one year of Yorm Bopha’s original three-year sentence, but upheld the conviction against her. Shortly afterward, she filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.
She is not eligible for release until September 2014.
On Tuesday, the Geneva-based World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) issued a statement calling on Cambodian authorities for Yorm Bopha’s “immediate and unconditional release.”
“The facts and circumstances of her arrest, as well as a thorough examination of the charges and evidence produced against her, clearly suggest that the criminal proceedings against Ms. Yorm Bopha were instigated in retaliation for her activities as a high-profile land and housing rights advocate,” the statement said.
“The judicial process was marred by significant irregularities and her fundamental rights have been repeatedly breached. Her sentencing thus represents a gross miscarriage of justice and is yet another blow to rule of law and the credibility of Cambodia’s judicial system.”
OMCT said that Yorm Bopha is being detained “merely for being at the forefront of the campaign” for the Boeung Kak Lake community and for calling for the release of 13 community members who were arrested in May 2012 after protesting their forced evictions.
“As such Ms. Yorm Bopha’s imprisonment amounts to arbitrary detention as it merely aims at obstructing her human rights activities, therefore contradicting international human rights standards and Cambodia’s obligations,” the statement said.
“Accordingly, she should be released immediately and unconditionally.”
The case also drew attention from London-based Amnesty International, which on Monday announced the launch of a worldwide campaign for the release of Yorm Bopha, whom it called a “prisoner of conscience” jailed for her rights work.
“Thousands of our members and supporters around the world are taking action on Yorm Bopha’s behalf, calling on the Cambodian authorities to finally set her free,” said Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Director.
“The lack of evidence against Yorm Bopha suggests that the authorities have unfairly targeted her … We will keep campaigning hard on Yorm Bopha’s case until she has been released without conditions and reunited with her family and community,” she said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.