Thirteen women involved in one of Cambodia’s highest-profile land disputes were released Wednesday after an appeals court reduced their sentences to time served.
The appeals court ordered the activists from the city’s Boeung Kak Lake community released but upheld an earlier verdict by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicting the women for aggravated rebellion and illegal occupation of land.
“The court amends the sentence from two and half years to one month and three days,” presiding judge Seng Sivutha said at the hearing, while hundreds of protesters outside the courtroom clashed with police.
The women, known as the “Boeung Kak 13,” had initially been handed sentences of between one year and two and a half years in prison after they were arrested at a protest on May 22.
Seng Sivutha told the courtroom after the hearing that the women were treated leniently because they “are of low education, didn’t consider the consequences of their actions seriously, and are mothers.”
A crowd of supporters greeted the women as they left the Prey Sar Prison late Wednesday evening.
Tep Vanny, one of the 13, told reporters she felt the verdict was an improvement, but that she and her fellow activists were the victims, not the criminals, in the dispute over the Boeung Kak Lake area land, which activists say the government gave away in concession to a private developer.
“The appeals court has been more just than the municipal court. This is what we want, we are just the victims of the land dispute,” Tep Vanny said.
Protests over Boeung Kak Lake evictions have been ongoing since 2008, when the Chinese-Cambodian Shukaku Inc. began draining the lake to make way for a luxury residential development, drawing international attention to the country’s land development policies.
Human rights groups welcomed the activists’ release but said the court should have dropped the charges entirely.
“I thank the appeals court but I am sad that it didn’t drop the charges against the group. The court must drop the charges; this is what we want,” Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the local rights watchdog Licadho said.
Activist monk Loun Savath, who was briefly detained at protest outside the courtroom when the women were first sentenced in May, told reporters that the court released the women because of international pressure and campaigns by their children.
“The court knows that they are women [and sentenced them anyway]. If it had not been for their children’s campaign to let the world know about their mothers, the court would never have released them,” he said.
Authorities had asked a court to review the jailing of the women after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Cambodia to free them in talks with her counterpart Hor Namhong earlier in June.
Hor Namhong had denied that the review was related to pressure from the U.S.
The case has drawn strong reactions inside Cambodia, where rights groups say some 300,000 people have been forced off their land over the past decade.
Outside the appeals court on Wednesday, anti-riot police barred hundreds of supporters and land activists from marching to the courtroom.
One pregnant woman, Bov Sreysros, 24, injured in the clashes miscarried later that day.
The Boeung Kak activists are just one of many groups 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.
About 400,000 people have been affected by the concessions, Licadho says.
Reported by So Chivi for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.