A court in Cambodia on Wednesday ordered three female land activists and a Buddhist monk to serve one year in prison each for “aggravating a rebellion” after they protested the jailing of seven fellow campaigners a day earlier, according to a rights worker.
The three women and monk Senn Hai were arrested Tuesday outside the court in Phnom Penh after staging a protest calling for the release of seven activists from the capital’s Boeung Kak community, who were sentenced to one year each for obstructing traffic during a demonstration.
Am Sam Ath, of local rights group Licadho, said court judge Phi Chhay handed all four defendants the maximum sentence of a year in prison and a two million riel (U.S. $490) fine under article 504 of Cambodia’s penal code, which is vaguely defined as instigating or perpetrating a rebellion.
Senn Hai, who was defrocked by authorities ahead of the court proceedings, and the three activists were escorted to Prey Sar Prison following the judge’s verdict, he said.
The activists are among residents of Boeung Kak community who have battled authorities for years over the eviction of thousands of families to make way for 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 Wednesday’s sentence as “shameful” and politically motivated, and called for their immediate release.
“There is no evidence to suggest that the four broke any laws,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Lim Sam Oeun, whose wife was among those convicted Wednesday, said he had “lost faith in the country’s justice system.”
“The courts in Cambodia are not independent—it’s true what the people say,” he added.
Monks associated with Senn Hai told RFA that authorities had broken the laws of Buddhism by defrocking him, adding that only members of the clergy have the right to remove a monk from the order.
The Phnom Penh municipal government had issued a statement ahead of the trial which said that Senn Hai was “a fake monk,” without providing further explanation.
City authorities also arrested and defrocked two additional monks Wednesday after accusing them of planning a land protest, sources told RFA, adding that they are being detained by police pending trial.
A report by the Phnom Penh Post quoted a monk from their pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district as saying the two had planned to support land dispute victims from Preah Vihear as they marched a petition to Hun Sen’s home.
Also on Wednesday, a group of 30 nongovernmental organizations issued a joint statement slamming the jail terms handed to the seven female Boeung Kak activists—including a 75-year-old-woman—by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court a day earlier.
“We … condemn the arrest, detention, and conviction of the seven Boeung Kak Lake community representatives following protests outside Phnom Penh City Hall,” said the statement signed by NGOs including Licadho, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC).
Authorities arrested the activists on Monday after they placed a bed in the middle of a busy road in Phnom Penh to highlight flooding problems in Boeung Kak they said were caused by the development project.
Less than 24 hours later, the court handed the seven women the maximum penalty under Cambodia’s Traffic Law of one year in jail each for obstructing traffic, as well as two million riel fines.
The statement hit out at authorities for the speedy conviction of the seven, adding that they had been tried “without any investigation” and “less than five hours after … [they] were interviewed and charged by the prosecutor.”
“This once again demonstrates how the judicial system continues to be abused in order to intimidate activists with a complete lack of accountability,” Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho, said in the statement.
Land disputes are a bitter problem for Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights to the country has warned could threaten social stability.
The country’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Several dozen families from Boeung Kak 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.
Reported by Morm Moniroth for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.