The Cambodian Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a jailed land rights activist's appeal to be released on bail, drawing criticism from rights groups who said the whole case smacked of political interference and should be thrown out.
Yorm Bopha, who had championed the right to housing for residents forcibly evicted from the capital Phnom Penh’s former Boeung Kak Lake neighborhood, had cited health and family reasons to be let out of jail pending her appeal on a conviction, but presiding judge Khim Ponn The said there was no basis for her application.
About 200 villagers protested outside of the court, burning a scales-of-justice replica, as Yorm Bopha was taken to prison. They yelled, "Corrupt court, hear the cry of villagers!”
Yorm Bopha, 29, was ordered jailed for three years by a municipal court which convicted her in December for committing “intentional violence" in connection with the beating of a suspected thief. Human rights groups said she had been targeted for her activism.
She told reporters in court that she was suffering from heart and respiratory problems and had to take care of her young child. Her husband, following a recent beating by the police, is unable to work.
“I am having heart, respiratory, and stomach issues,” she said. “I have many responsibilities, defending my family and land. If the court wants to see real justice, I believe that I should be released."
"But the Boeung Kak community and I will continue to struggle forever and we will not be defeated," she said.
Local rights groups Licadho, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, Equitable Cambodia, and the Community Legal Education Center in a joint statement called on the judiciary to set a date for Yorm Bopha’s appeal against the conviction and for "an end to political interference in this case, and more generally the court system."
"The Supreme Court’s ruling comes as no surprise," they said, adding that just over a week before Yorm Bopha’s appearance at the court, Prime Minister Hun Sen had publicly stated in a televised speech that her case had nothing to do with land issues and that she instead had acted “violently and unjustly in the eyes of the government."
"In a judicial system renowned for its political obedience, it's impossible to see the Prime Minister's comment as harmless," the statement said.
Yorm Bopha has now spent 204 days in jail since her initial detention in early September 2012.
“Bopha is not the one to have acted unjustly here,” said Eang Vuthy, a representative of Equitable Cambodia.
“Back at the Municipal Court in December 2012, no testimony was presented in support of her guilt. Not a single witness, whether from the prosecution or the defense, at any point stated Bopha had engaged in violent actions."
“The procedural and substantive flaws in Bopha’s original trial were so dramatic, so blatant, that it’s impossible to conclude that this conviction isn’t politically motivated,” said Licadho Director Naly Pilorge.
“How else do you explain a conviction for ‘intentional violence’ against a person who never laid a finger on anyone?”
The denial of bail for Yorm Bopha came just a week before her fellow Boeung Kak community activist Tep Vanny is due to be honored by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington.
She is one of five honorees to receive the 2013 Global Leadership Award conferred by the organization Vital Voice.
Reported by So Chivi for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.