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UN Envoy, NGOs Rebuke Gov’t Over Recent Spate of Arrests

19 Nov

By: Kuch Naren , The Cambodia Daily, 19 November 2014

The U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia on Tuesday joined a group of local NGOs in criticizing a spate of recent arrests of activists, monks and opposition figures.

Ten female land rights activists, three Buddhist monks and two opposition CNRP figures were all arrested last week. Of the 15, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has already convicted 11 of them in two snap trials, sentencing them each to a year in jail.

Anti-eviction activist Yorm Bopha and other residents of Phnom Penh's Boeng Kak neighborhood protest outside the British Embassy on Tuesday. (Satoshi Takahashi)

Anti-eviction activist Yorm Bopha and other residents of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood protest outside the British Embassy on Tuesday. (Satoshi Takahashi)

U.N. envoy Surya Subedi on Tuesday urged the government to respect the law while calling on the country’s courts to exercise their authority independent of outside influences.

“It saddens me to see the courts being used again and again as a tool of the executive,” he said in a statement. “The lack of judicial independence is one of the central obstacles to achieving the just, inclusive society that Cambodians strive for.”

“Those who seek to exercise fundamental freedoms can be arrested, charged and convicted, on little or no material grounds. For such cases, justice in the heavily backlogged judicial system can be remarkably swift,” Mr. Subedi added.

Six NGOs also held a press conference Tuesday to condemn the arrests, calling the government’s crackdown on its critics a serious human rights violation.

Latt Khy, who heads the land and livelihoods program for rights group Adhoc, said the courts were clearly under political pressure as the charges brought against the activists were “baseless.”

“We, the civil society groups, believe all the people arrested, convicted, and imprisoned did not commit wrongdoing as charged,” he said.

Son Chum Chuon, program director for the Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association, said the forced defrocking and imprisonment of three ethnic Khmer Krom monks was a violation of Buddhist principles and had left many Khmer Krom activists fearful of joining any more protests.

“The arrest and detention of the three Khmer Krom monks is a move to crack down on activists to prevent them from participating in social work,” he said.

The Khmer Krom hail from what is present-day southern Vietnam. Many of those living in Cambodia feel colonial France unjustly ceded the area to Vietnam and advocate for its return to Cambodia.

Suon Bunsak, executive director of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said the groups would seek a meeting with lawmakers from the National Assembly’s human rights commission to push for the immediate release of those jailed last week.

On Tuesday morning, about 200 supporters of those arrested marched to 15 embassies to bring attention to their plight. They submitted petitions to the U.S. Embassy, the European Union delegation and offices of the U.N. asking them to put pressure on the Cambodian government to release the group.

 

In relics case, justice takes time

18 Nov

By: Chhay Channyda, Phnom Penh Post, 18 November 2014

Authorities and monks gather around a golden urn from Oudong Mountain and other seized items at a police station in Kandal province in February. PHOTO SUPPLIED

The speed at which 11 people – 10 land activists and a monk – were sentenced to one year in prison last week shows just how fast the justice system in Cambodia can work.

It also stands in stark contrast to the large number of cases that involve long periods of pre-trial detention, including ones where the involvement of suspects remains unclear.

At Kandal prison, Sieng Chamrouen, 35, has been making regular visits to her father, Sieng Sarin, one of four security guards arrested along with a villager when a golden urn containing the ashes of the Buddha was stolen from Oudong Mountain in December.

“My dad was on duty that night, but he does not know who stole the relics,” Chamrouen said.

The relics were later found in Takeo and a 24-year-old man, Keo Reaksmey, was charged after police raided his house. By then, though, police had allegedly already found other statues stolen from Oudong in the home of chief security guard Pha Sokhem.

Effectively treated as a single entity, the security guards and villager were charged and ordered into pre-trial detention.

In the time since their arrest, Chamrouen said, her father and the other men arrested at Oudong have not seen the inside of a courtroom.

“[My father] has been in prison for almost a year,” she said. “He’s innocent [and] should be released.”

A gold seller arrested the same day as Reaksmey and charged with receiving stolen goods has had a similarly uncertain time in prison, though at least has gone to trial.

In a court hearing in Kandal on October 28, Siek Sareth, 39, denied knowing that gold she had bought from Reaksmey – melted down from relics looted from Oudong – was stolen.

“The gold was in melted small pieces,” she said. “I did not know they were relics. I have been a gold dealer for more than 20 years and I have never done anything illegal.”

When Sareth arrived in court on November 12 – with a verdict due – she was told that presiding judge Hok Vanthina was busy. She was then sent back to prison without being told when the verdict would come.

Reaksmey has not yet gone on trial. He did, however, appear in court as Sareth’s only witness, she said.

“He told the court that I did not know anything and he wanted to tell the court that I am innocent and he acted alone,” she said.

Officials at the court gave few details about the three cases.

Lim Sokuntha, the investigating judge in the guards’ case, said he had concluded investigations, meaning his decision on whether to pursue convictions or throw the cases out had been forwarded to the prosecutor.

Sam Rethy Veasna, a court deputy prosecutor, said he had seen no such documents from Sokuntha.

According to NGO the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), Cambodia is the 27th worst in the world for percentage of pre-trial or remand prisoners in its overall prison population. With about 60 per cent of its prison population composed of inmates in pre-trial detention, it is worse than Iraq and is the second worst in Southeast Asia, just behind the Philippines.

The ICPS’s definition of pre-trial detention includes time served right up until the end of the criminal trial and final appeal.

Using this same basic definition, local rights group Licadho says that 63 per cent of the adult prison population is in pre-trial detention, based on government figures from September.

“For women, the percentage would be 70 per cent and for juveniles it stands at 83 per cent,” Licadho said.

By law, anyone facing a misdemeanor charge can be held up to six months and anyone charged with a more serious crime can be held for up to 18 months.

However, the law says that pre-trial detention is meant to be used only in exceptional circumstances. Reasons for using it include preventing further crime being committed, ensuring the accused attends court and protecting public order.

“As clearly set out in the Cambodian Code of Criminal Procedure, in principle, a charged person should remain at liberty,” said Licadho’s prison consultant, Sharon Critoph. “Pre-trial detention should only be ordered as a last resort and only in cases of a felony or a misdemeanor involving a punishment of one year or more [in prison].”

While the theft of national relics would fit that category, long pre-trial periods behind bars often hinder chances of a fair trial, rights groups say.

“It can be argued that where somebody has been held in pre-trial detention, particularly in cases where the statutory time limits have been exceeded, a judge is more likely to hand down a custodial sentence,” the Cambodian Center for Human Rights wrote in a 2013 briefing paper on the matter.

Early this year, judges were ordered to begin documenting their reasons for putting someone in pre-trial detention.

“[Licadho] welcomed these moves towards reform, but notes with disappointment that there appears to be no effective monitoring of the extent to which the procedures are properly implemented,” Critoph said.

Continued high rates of pre-trial detention suggested the changes have brought no significant impact yet, she added.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL

 

Protest held at Prey Sar in support of detainees

17 Nov

By:Khouth Sophak Chakrya, Phnom Penh Post, 17 November 2014

Hundreds of people gathered yesterday morning in front of Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison to demand the release of 17 incarcerated activists, monks and opposition members.

The detainees include 10 land activists, three monks and four members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. Fifteen of them were arrested, charged or convicted last week amid a wave of action that observers and rights groups have dubbed a deliberate attempt to apply pressure on dissenters.

Yorm Bopha, a prominent member of the Boeung Kak community, said the arrests prove that “people’s right to live with dignity and freedom of assembly in the Kingdom is being removed by the government”.

Seven fellow Boeung Kak activists were sentenced Tuesday to one year in prison for using a wooden bed to block a road during a protest. The next day, four more people – three female activists and a monk – who were arrested outside of the court were each sentenced to one year in prison for “intentionally inciting violence against a public authority”.

During yesterday’s gathering outside of the prison’s correctional centres one and two, guards set up steel blockades about 20 metres away from the prison gates to keep the demonstrators away.

Ee Sarom, executive director of NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said the blockades “should be encouraged” for “the safety of inmates”. But, he added, in detaining the 17, the “municipal authorities are acting like a dictator and violating human and religious rights”.

Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said the CNRP was working to secure the release of the detainees.

As well as planned visits to the prison, the CNRP youth will launch a “Free the 17” campaign at Freedom Park at 9am on Wednesday, she said.

A letter from opposition leader Sam Rainsy calling for the release of detained CNRP member Meach Sovannara has also been forwarded to the court, she added.

Following yesterday’s action, Bopha vowed that the group would return “every Sunday until our members have been released”.

Otres families in farm fight

17 Nov

By:Sen David, Phnom Penh Post, 17 November 2014

Some 150 families from Otres commune in Preah Sihanouk’s Stung Hav district have asked the authorities to lend them a hand after a local businesswoman allegedly ordered their crops to be cleared.

Villager Nget Chanthou said the businesswoman, whom she identified as Hem Sovannary, has accused the families of living on more than 100 hectares of her property, but villagers say they have been there since 1986. Workers for Sovannary started clearing the crops a few days ago, according to Chanthou.

“Now they clear one hectare of the villagers’ plantations. They clear by chainsaw and then burn it,” Chanthou said.

Another villager, Koe Leng, said her community is “angry” with Sovannary. “Why does she have the right to clear our plantation?”

Cheap Sotheary, a local coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said the dispute is still being decided in court, so destroying the crops is “illegal”.

“They ordered 21 workers to clear the villagers’ plantations, such as mango, orange, et cetera,” Sotheary said. “It looks like [they want] to eliminate the proof.”

Provincial Governor Chhin Sokhun said he has ordered local authorities to stop the clearing.

“I ordered them to stop their activity and await the court’s decision.”

Yorm Bopha ready to step to fore again

14 Nov

By:Khouth Sophak Chakrya and Shane Worrell,Phnom Penh Post, 14 November 2014

With Tep Vanny and other Boeung Kak activists back in prison, Yorm Bopha is again ready to lead her community’s fight for justice.

“I feel worried – scared – about being re-arrested … but we need to do this,” she said yesterday. “I am ready to be imprisoned again if they want to arrest and charge me unjustly.”

Bopha, a land-rights activist who spent more than a year in prison after her arrest in September 2012, missed the protests this week that have led to 10 activists and one monk being rounded up and swiftly sentenced to one year in prison. Two other monks have been arrested and charged.

The trials took place as authorities stepped up pressure on the opposition party, arresting two Cambodia National Rescue Party officials and denying bail to a third on charges related to violent protests in July.

Even though she has an unfinished court case hanging over her head, Bopha said she is already filling in the hole left by the imprisonment of her community’s most strident protesters, including Vanny, Nget Khun and Song Srey Leap.

“Right now, we are making a new strategy for demonstrations, calling for the government to release all our members.”

Like other events this week, Bopha’s words evoke memories of May 2012, when the imprisonment of the protesters who became known as the “Boeung Kak 13” quickly made her the community’s de facto leader.

Suddenly thrust to the front and centre, Bopha called for the release of those women, speaking out against the government and squaring off against security personnel. For her efforts, she was threatened and warned that her name was on a government “list”, something that effectively foretold her arrest.

While the 13 women were released in June 2012, Bopha was jailed that September, accused of masterminding an axe attack on two men.

Next week will be a year since she was freed. The Supreme Court ordered a retrial of her case, but that has yet to happen. Concerns that it suddenly will are something Bopha has pushed aside.

“[Today], we will take a petition to the National Assembly,” she said. “We also plan to gather outside Prey Sar prison to tell those women we will not forget them.”

Although Bopha has protested many times since her release – and even been arrested again – her former husband Lous Sakhorn is cautious about her plans in the current climate.

“We have to take care, especially for our son,” he said.

But Ee Sarom, executive director of NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said he does not expect more arrests.

“There were not many protesters in front of court [on Wednesday],” he said. “Maybe authorities will see that as success.”

Sarom added, though, that protests will continue today. “They are not changing tactics. The community members are not scared.”

Despite Dearth of Evidence, More Protesters Jailed

13 Nov

By: Mech Dara,The Cambodia Dialy, 13 November 2014

In its second controversial snap decision in two days, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday sentenced four protesters to a year behind bars for obstructing public officials just 24 hours after they were arrested for demonstrating outside the court.

Activist monk Soeung Hai, Boeng Kak resident Heng Pich, Boeng Kak evictee Im Srey Touch and Puong Sopheap of Phnom Penh’s Thma Koul neighborhood were convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after failing to comply with police orders to disperse from outside the court on Tuesday.

Residents of the Boeng Kak and Borei Keila communities gather outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday in support of protesters who were arrested outside the court Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Residents of the Boeng Kak and Borei Keila communities gather outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday in support of protesters who were arrested outside the court Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The quartet had been protesting for the release of seven Boeng Kak activists, who were detained Monday after dragging a bed onto Monivong Boulevard in front of City Hall to protest the flooding of their neighborhood.

Those seven were sentenced to a year in prison Tuesday for obstructing traffic.

The four convicted Wednesday were held overnight at municipal police headquarters before facing a closed-door questioning by deputy municipal prosecutor Kol Bol, who then recommended the charges to Presiding Judge Khy Chhai.

After a trial lasting no more than four hours, the group was convicted and sentenced at about 7 p.m. last night.

“They were charged under Article 504 of the criminal code and are sentenced…to one year in prison each and fined two million riel [about $500] for obstructing public officials,” Judge Chhai announced in the courtroom.

During proceedings, Judge Chhai dismissed the defendants’ claims that they did not hear authorities’ orders Monday to move away from the courthouse within 20 minutes.

“The answers they gave were just an excuse and there was no evidence that the court could believe,” he said, also accusing the group of insulting officials and using violence.

However, one of the two witnesses called by prosecutors was unable to identify any of the four as being directly involved in any incident outside the courthouse.

In response to questioning from a member of the defendants’ legal team, traffic police officer Hay Vet told the court: “I did not see them doing it…I was busy directing the traffic and I was not paying attention to them.”

The other witness, Prampi Makara district police officer Tep Saroeun, admitted under questioning that he had not seen the group use violence against authorities.

At one stage, the court displayed images of monk Soeung Hai, who was defrocked prior to his court appearance, at various other demonstrations including at a recent protest outside the Vietnamese Embassy where he led the burning of that country’s flag.

Ham Sunrith, one of the lawyers for the four, said the clips should be regarded as irrelevant and argued that the prosecution witnesses’ responses supported his clients’ case.

“There is no evidence to show that they obstructed public officials,” Mr. Sunrith said. “In the video clip there were no images showing them obstructing the authorities.”

After the court announced its decision, all four rallied against the injustice of the verdict before they were taken away and transported to Prey Sar prison.

Many of their relatives and friends waiting outside the court building were reduced to tears on hearing the outcome.

Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at rights group Licadho, slammed the decision, saying that it flew in the face of evidence presented to the court.

“This conviction is to break the spirit of protesters…. It has shown that the court is not independent in our Cambodia,” he said.

Also Wednesday, a group of 30 local civil society organizations released a joint statement condemning the sentences meted out to the seven Boeng Kak activists on Tuesday.

“The targeted arrest, conviction and sentencing of the Boeng Kak Lake community representatives won’t resolve anything, on the contrary it will further raise international awareness and solidarity for their cause,” Ee Sarom, executive director of urban housing NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said in the statement.

“The government needs to realize that citizens’ grievances raised through peaceful protests have to be addressed.”

 

 

At the speed of ‘justice’

12 Nov

By:Khouth Sophak Chakrya,Phnom Penh Post, 12  November 2014

Muncipal security guards arrest an activist Buddhist monk during a protest in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday. AFP

Seven Boeung Kak lake activists, all of them women, were convicted and sentenced to one year in prison yesterday – just a day after being arrested during a protest. Five of them were members of the so-called “Boeung Kak 13” imprisoned in similar circumstances in 2012.

Yesterday’s decision sparked outrage from rights groups, who drew comparisons to that case.

“I sentence them each to one year in prison and fine them 2 million riel [about $500],” Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge Mong Mony Sorphea announced after a trial that lasted less than four hours.

The women’s case began at about 3pm after they were charged under Article 78 of the Traffic Law for using a wooden bed to block Monivong Boulevard outside Phnom Penh’s City Hall. The penalties are the maximum that can be given under the law.

The seven are Tep Vanny, Nget Khun, Kong Chantha, Bo Chhorvy, Phan Chhunreth, Norng Sreng and Song Srey Leap.

Vanny, Khun, Chantha, Chhunreth and Srey Leap were among the 13 imprisoned for more than a month after a whirlwind three-hour trial in 2012. On that occasion, they had been arrested two days earlier for protesting.

Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said he was shocked at yesterday’s trial and verdict. He added that he felt ashamed at how his country’s courts were acting.

“Cambodia’s courts are not justice for all, they are not independent,” he said. “The government is using the courts. The courts have no spirit.”

The defendants yesterday gave testimony but presented no witnesses. During her brief statement, Vanny admitted that the activists had brought the bed to the protest.

“We carried it as a symbol that our homes and villages have flooded and we have nowhere to stay,” she said. “But we did not block traffic.”

Nhem Sao Nol, Daun Penh police deputy chief, disagreed when giving evidence for the prosecution. The protesters had intentionally caused a traffic jam, he said.

A traffic police officer who gave testimony accused the defendants of climbing up and hanging from a crane.

After just a few hours, the prosecutor, Seang Sok, said that the court had seen enough to convict the women.

“According to the evidence, including videos and photos that show illegal activity, I ask the judge to punish them,” he said.

When the judge handed down his verdict, cries of “injustice” could be heard from the women.

“Why did you open this hearing if you are just going to listen to the accusations and give us the maximum penalty?” Vanny screamed.

Ham Sunrith, the women’s lawyer, said that under the strike law, the women had every right to peacefully demonstrate.

“Authorities can … temporarily arrest them until the protest disperses, but they cannot imprison them,” he said.

Am Sam Ath, from rights group Licadho, said his NGO deeply regretted the verdict.

Security guards arrest a land-rights activist from Boeung Kak lakeside community during a protest in front of the municipal court yesterday. AFP

“The people need the authorities to help,” he said, referring to the flooding that villagers blame on the filling in of Boeung Kak lake. “This is their response.”

Four other people – three activists and Suen Hai, a monk – were arrested outside the court during a morning protest.

The Boeung Kak community has battled authorities for years over the eviction of thousands of families to make way for a government-linked development that has yet to materialise.

Only several dozen families are still waiting for land titles owed to them after Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2011 reclaimed part of the concession awarded to ruling party Senator Lao Meng Khin’s Shukaku company in 2007.

One of those imprisoned yesterday, Nget Khun, a woman in her seventies, last month watched municipal authorities mark out land for her long-awaited title.

“I won’t stop protesting until City Hall resolves the land disputes for all the families in Boeung Kak,” she said at the time. She has yet to receive the document.

Protesters, led by Vanny, have broadened their activism to encompass a range of disputes, earning them the contemptuous title of “professional protesters” from authorities.

One-year jail terms for B Kak protesters

11 Nov

By: Khouth Sophak Chakrya,Phnom Penh Post, 11 November 2014

District security guards arrest a Boeung Kak land rights activist in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday as she protests the previous day’s arrest of seven fellow activists. Those seven were sentenced to one-year jail sentences in little more than 24 hours after their arrests. AFP

SEVEN Boeung Kak lake activists, all of them women, have been convicted and sentenced to one year in jail – just a day after being arrested during a protest.

Five of the group were members of the so-called “Boeung Kak 13” imprisoned in similar circumstances in 2012.

“I sentence them each to one year in prison and fine them 2 million riel (about $500),” the presiding Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge told the courtroom.

The seven women stood trial this afternoon after being charged under Article 78 of the traffic law just hours earlier for allegedly blocking Monivong Boulevard outside City Hall in Phnom Penh yesterday.

The seven are Tep Vanny, Nget Khun, Kong Chantha, Bo Chhorvy, Phan Chhunreth, Norng Sreng and Song Srey Leap.

Of those, Vanny, Khun, Chantha, Chhunreth and Srey Leap were among 13 imprisoned for more than a month for protesting in 2012.

Four other people – three activists and Suen Hai, a monk from Stung Meanchey pagoda – were arrested this morning outside the municipal court during a protest calling for the group’s release.

Activists convicted in one day trial

Protesters also made their presence known outside the US Embassy.

During Monday’s protest at City Hall, protesters blocked the road, demanding authorities fix the sewage system in their villages to prevent flooding.
“Our houses get flooded every time it rains and . . . we worry about electric shock,” Vanny said before her arrest.

The community has battled authorities for years over the eviction of thousands of families from Boeung Kak to make way for a government-linked development that has yet to materialise.

Several dozen families are still waiting for land titles owed to them after Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2011 reclaimed part of the concession awarded to ruling party Senator Lao Meng Khin’s Shukaku company in 2007.

Boeng Kak Protesters Egg Embassy, Ex-Governor’s Photo

28 Aug

By Aun Pheap, The Cambodia Daily, 28 August 2014

English5

Police Block Villagers’ March Hun Sen’s House

6 Aug

By Aun Pheap And George Wright, The Cambodia Daily, 06 August 2014

English3

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