Cambodian and international rights groups have renewed their calls for the release of Phnom Penh housing rights campaigner Yorm Bopha one year after her arrest, saying her plight should not be forgotten during the country’s current political crisis.
Global watchdog Amnesty International said in a statement Tuesday that Yorm Bopha should be released “immediately and unconditionally” and warned the government against imprisoning other peaceful rights campaigners in the future.
Yorm Bopha, a longtime activist for members of Phnom Penh’s 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.
'One of many'
“She is just one of many human rights defenders who have been harassed, threatened, attacked, and locked up over the past years,” Amnesty International's deputy Asia Pacific director Isabelle Arradon said.
Rights groups are concerned Yorm Bopha's case could be sidelined amid the political uncertainty following July 28 national elections that have seen both Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party claiming victory.
“The new government, once formed, must halt this disturbing trend as a matter of urgency, and ensure there is space in Cambodia for peaceful activists to conduct their important and legitimate work," Arradon said.
“Yorm Bopha must not be forgotten during the current political deadlock,” she said.
Letters of encouragement
Twenty-five local civil society organizations issued a joint statement Tuesday calling on the Supreme Court to hear Yorm Bohpa’s pending appeal “without delay” and overturn her conviction.
One of the groups, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), has launched a campaign to get Cambodians to send Yorm Bopha letters of encouragement in Prey Sar Prison, in order to let her know she is not forgotten, the group said.
Ramana Sorn, coordinator for CCHR’s Freedom of Expression Project, said the “Voices for Freedom” campaign team met with Yorm Bopha on Friday to deliver some of the 365 messages, one for each day since her arrest.
“This is a form of encouragement, and it is also an appeal for the court and the government to release her,” Ramana Sorn told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“She didn’t commit any crime; she only demanded land rights for herself and her community.”
“She is happy when she knows everyone is not forgetting her.”
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.
Rights groups have said that legal proceedings in her case have been marred by flagrant violations and that there has been no concrete evidence to warrant her conviction.
“The continued imprisonment of Yorm Bopha despite the sheer lack of evidence against her just goes to show that she was never afforded her right to remain innocent before proven guilty and that this was a political case in which the verdict was pre-determined,” CCHR president Ou Virak said in a statement Tuesday.
"As a grassroots activist Yorm Bopha faces a high level of risk. We must continue to rally together to demand her release and to put pressure on the Supreme Court to overturn her unjust conviction.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.