Cambodian authorities jailed a pair of Boeung Kak Lake activists today for their role in a “Black Monday” protest after charging them with incitement to commit a felony.
If convicted, Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 4 million riels (U.S.$ 975) for the Aug. 15 demonstration that was part of a larger effort to win the release of jailed human rights workers and press the government to resolve land-grab issues across the country.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Ly Sophanna, in a post on the mobile messaging app Telegram, said the court decided to detain the women in Prey Sar prison and that their trial will resume Aug. 22.
Tep Vanny told reporters when she and Bov Sophea arrived at the courthouse that authorities had asked them where they obtained the dummies, black earrings, candles, incense sticks, U.N. and Cambodian flags, and other materials used in their protest.
“There is no law banning citizens from using those materials for advocacy campaigns,” she said.
In the peaceful Aug. 15 protest that police broke up, the two women buried headless dummies in sand pits, saying they represented the court, court officials, critic Kem Ley’s killer, and those behind the murder. Their missing heads represented "brainlessness," the protestors told RFA.
Government critic Kem Ley was murdered on July 10, and many in Cambodia don’t believe the government’s story that he was killed by a former soldier over a debt.
The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Myanmar.
In one of the most egregious land-grabs, some 3,500 families were evicted from the land surrounding Boeung Kak Lake, which was filled with sand to make way for a development project with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Spanish researcher deported
While authorities sent the two Cambodian women to Prey Sar prison, they deported a Spanish researcher who joined them in their Black Monday protest.
Interior Ministry chief investigator Ouk Hay Seila told RFA’s Khmer Service that Marga Bujosa Segado had violated Cambodian labor law and was also active in the land activists’ demonstrations.
“We deported her just now via Bangkok Airway to her own country,” he said.
Activists wearing black have demonstrated for the past 15 Mondays in an effort to win the release of four human rights workers and an election official who were jailed on charges widely seen as attempts to muzzle political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP.
Hun Sen and other officials have condemned the protests as a “color revolution.”
Over the years, Hun Sen has repeatedly inveighed against “color revolutions,” named after a series of popular movements that used passive resistance to topple governments in countries of the former Soviet Union during the 2000s.
Um Sam An bail appeal denied
The jailing of the Boeung Kak Lake activists comes as the supreme court rejected opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker Um Sam An’s bail request.
His attorney, Hem Socheat, said the lawmaker’s legal team may file a complaint to the Constitution Council of Cambodia, asking it to interpret the constitutional question surrounding the lawmaker’s immunity.
“What the investigative judge and the supreme court said is that they do not have the authority to examine the lawmaker’s immunity,” he said.
The council was established under the constitution adopted in 1993 to decide if the laws approved by the national legislature are constitutional and to oversee litigation related to the election of the Cambodian National Assembly and Senate.
Cambodian lawmakers have immunity from prosecution for opinions expressed in the exercise of their duties. A two-thirds vote of the legislature is necessary to strip a lawmaker of his immunity unless the legislator is caught in the act of committing a crime.
Um Sam An was jailed after Hun Sen ordered police to arrest anyone accusing the government of using “fake” maps to cede national territory to neighboring Vietnam.
The lawmaker says he found a map in the United States Library of Congress that he claims is different from the one Hun Sen and the government used to represent the final official say on the border issue.
On April 12, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court officially charged Um Sam An with two criminal offenses over his accusations that the government had ceded land to Vietnam along its border.
So Chantha, a political science professor who lectures at several Cambodian universities, said the court’s stance on the lawmaker's case is not neutral.
“In any cases relating to politics, we see that the court never gives a fair decision or trial,” he said.
So Chantha told RFA the caught-in-the-act clause in the constitution shouldn’t apply because “what Um Sam An did, he did it in an attempt to take part in safeguarding Cambodia’s sovereignty.”
Reported by San Sel, Ieng Neang and Tha Tai for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.