Seven women activists who placed a bed in the middle of a busy road in Cambodia’s capital to highlight flooding problems were slapped with a maximum penalty of one year in jail each for obstructing traffic on Tuesday, in a verdict condemned by rights groups as excessive and politically motivated.
Outspoken land campaigner Tep Vanny and six other activists were also fined 2 million riel (U.S. $490) each for placing a bed in the middle of a Phnom Penh street during a protest that caused a severe traffic jam, according to Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for rights group Licadho.
They were given the maximum sentence under Article 78 of Cambodia’s Traffic Law. All seven will appeal the conviction.
Police arrested the protesters on Monday after removing the bed they used to highlight flooding in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak community they claim was caused by a development project backed by Lao Meng Khin, a lawmaker from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP).
Am Sam Ath condemned the verdict and told RFA’s Khmer Service that the CPP had wanted to teach the protesters a lesson after they drew public attention to the flooding they say has inundated their homes since last week, despite repeated calls on the government to clear drains surrounding the community.
“If the courts were independent, they would have been released,” he said, adding that the judge should have also punished police and security guards for using “excessive force” to arrest the protesters.
“The guards and police sexually harassed the female protesters and abused them, but the authorities claimed they disturbed traffic.”
Am Sam Ath said Hun Sen’s government has yet to resolve the nation’s land ownership crisis, which stems from the bloody Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s, and that the sentence was meant to warn victims of disputes against coming to the capital to petition the authorities for help with their cases.
According to local media, five of the defendants—including Tep Vanny—already had standing convictions from 2012 for protesting against evictions taking place in Boeung Kak, where the community’s lake has been filled in to make way for the development project.
In that case, the municipal court both charged the “Boueng Kak 13” with obstructing public officials and illegally occupying land, and sentenced them to two-and-a-half years in prison on the same day. They were released a month later after appealing their case, but their convictions were upheld.
Am Sam Ath said authorities also arrested three laymen and a monk who held a protest demanding the release of the seven women outside the court on Tuesday, and that they were being held at the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Headquarters pending a trial expected Wednesday.
Call for release
New York-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called the arrest and sentencing of the seven women “absolutely ludicrous” and demanded their immediate release, saying members of the group had simply exercised their right to nonviolent protest.
“Every time there is a protest at Boeung Kak Lake, the authorities look to arrest and sentence people—frankly, this is not acceptable,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.
Robertson said that the conviction of the seven women, just one day after their arrest, raised “very serious concerns … about fair trial procedures.”
“The Cambodian courts are hardly independent—they are completely controlled by the CPP … and whatever the Cambodian People’s Party wants to see as a result in the court it can order that to be done,” he said.
“So when we see actions against activists like this, it’s quite clear that there is a political hand behind it.”
Robertson called on the Washington-based World Bank, the Manila-based Asian Development Bank and other donors to Cambodia to pressure Phnom Penh for their release.
The World Bank had halted funding to Cambodia in 2011 after state security forces helped to violently evict thousands of families from Boeung Kak Lake and last month said it had not yet reached a decision on whether to lift its ban on loans to the country.
Residents of the Boeung Kak community have battled authorities for years over the eviction of thousands of families to make way for a development project that has yet to materialize.
Several dozen families are still waiting for land titles owed to them after Hun Sen in 2011 reclaimed part of the concession awarded to Lao Meng Khin’s Shukaku company in 2007.
Also on Tuesday, the head of the CNRP’s information department, Meach Sovannara, was arrested and thrown in Prey Sar Prison on the order of Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge Keo Mony, pending trial on charges of insurrection and inciting violence, according to his lawyer Chan Chen.
Meach Sovannara, who is also director of the opposition Khmer Post Radio, was hauled out of his car in Phnom Penh by security forces and escorted away in a police vehicle as authorities read out a warrant for his arrest, the lawyer said.
He will be tried under articles 28, 218, 459, and 495 of Cambodia’s penal code for his alleged involvement in a violent July 15 protest by CNRP supporters at Freedom Park in the capital. If convicted, he could serve a maximum of 30 years in prison.
“This is very unjust for my client—the judge abused his rights and dignity,” Chan Chen told RFA, adding that Meach Sovannara was innocent of the allegations against him.
“Even though my client was there, he didn’t incite anyone to riot. My client asked demonstrators to calm down and love each other, and not resort to violence.”
Chan Chen said Keo Mony had not responded to his request to have Meach Sovannara freed on bail and that he would appeal the judge’s order if his client was not released within five days.
The arrest comes one day after CNRP and CPP working teams failed to agree on the remaining 10 percent of a draft law to overhaul the country’s electoral process.
The reforms were initiated as part of a deal made in July to end the opposition’s boycott of parliament following disputed national polls a year earlier.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann suggested that Meach Sovannara’s arrest was politically motivated and called on the government to release him immediately.
“The CPP must implement the agreement dated July 22—there shouldn’t be any more pressure,” he said.
“We are assisting him through this process. Senior members of the CNRP will talk with their CPP counterparts to resolve this case.”
Senior CPP official and parliament spokesman Chheang Von refused to comment on the arrest.
Reported by Ses Vansak, Morm Moniroth and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.