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Wednesday, September 12, 2012Print Friendly Version of this pagePrint Get a PDF version of this webpagePDF

CAMBODIA: Two land rights activists imprisoned for their involvement in protests

Tim Sakmony (L) and Yorm Bopha (R)
September 12, 2012


Urgent Appeal Case: AHRC-UAC-170-2012
12 September 2012


CAMBODIA: Two land rights activists imprisoned for their involvement in protests

ISSUES: Illegal arrest and detention, land grabbing, rule of law, justice system, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly
Dear friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is deeply concerned about the recent arrests and detention of two land rights activists consecutively in just two days. They are currently being held in pre-trial custody for their involvement in land protests. Ms. Yorm Bopha (29), an outspoken Boeung Kak Lake village representative, was arrested on September 4 and was sent to Prey Sor (CC2) Prison on the charge of intentional violence. This was followed by the arrest and detention of Ms. Tim Sakmony (65), a prominent land activist from Borei Keila community, on the charge of making a false declaration under article 633 of Cambodia's Penal Code.

These two well-known land rights activists have been advocating for land rights on behalf of hundreds of residents in high profile land disputes in the two communities in Phnom Penh. They have organized numerous peaceful demonstrations demanding fair compensation in exchange for their lands in Boeung Kak Lake community and Borei Keila which have been granted by the government to two private development companies: Shukaku Inc. and Phan Imex respectively.
The arrest and detention of the two land rights advocates have been condemned by local civil society organizations as a means to silence victimized communities and to halt demonstrations against the companies as well as the government.
In the past few years, there have been a number of development projects between the government and private companies to modernize Phnom Penh as globalization has been felt throughout the country. Development plans include constructing high-rise condominiums, modern shopping malls, and sports centers, which requires massive areas of land in Phnom Penh and the surrounding areas. As a result, many slum and under-developed areas have been targeted for these development projects, including Boeung Kak Lake and Borei Keila.

In 2007, the Phnom Penh Municipality signed off a 99-year lease agreement for a 133 hectare concession at Boeung Kak Lake and the surrounding area to the Shukaku Inc. company, owned by Senator Lao Meng Khin from the ruling Cambodian People's Party. Then the process of filling the lake started which affected hundreds of families living in the immediate vicinity. The residents hoped for fair compensation for their lands and houses based on the market price; however, the company offered compensation well below the market value, which prompted a series of massive yet peaceful demonstrations since 2010.
The years 2011 and 2012 have seen forced eviction and violent crackdowns on the Boeung Kak Lake protests and numerous protestors have been arbitrarily arrested and jailed on unspecific charges by the authorities. The houses of the residents were bulldozed and destroyed by the company with the assistance of the police and military police to make way for the company's large-scale development project. Many of the residents, including women and children, were injured in a number of violent crackdown operations. The residents have been calling for intervention from Prime Minister Hun Sen and other foreign embassies in the bitter land dispute.
It is important to note that the residents of Boeung Kak Lake were denied land titles even though they have been living in the areas over five consecutive years as required by the 2001 Land Law. Moreover, the law stipulates that lakes are public property and cannot be sold to private entities, leading many people to believe that the lease is illegal. However, Cambodian people have no adequate knowledge of law. And, what they can do is to peacefully protest to protect their lands and house and demand fair compensation.
Yorm Bopha is an outspoken Boeung Kak Lake community representative. She has organized and led a series of peaceful demonstrations against the company. She is well-known to the community residents and the authorities. On September 4, 2012, Bopha and her husband were arrested by plain-clothed police while they were checking names on a voting register. Bopha was charged by Phnom Penh Municipal Court with intentional violence with aggravating circumstances under Article 218 of the Penal Code and was sent to Prey Sor (CC2) prison for pre-trial detention while her non-activist husband was released. According to the authorities, Bopha was involved in the beating of a suspected thief who had allegedly stolen wing mirrors of her car. According to witnesses, the thief was suspected of stealing wing mirrors on a number of occasions. On August 7, 2012, the suspect was seen around Bopha's car at Boeung Kak, and the residents beat him. At that time, Bopha was not present in the scene and was never questioned by the police. Then, on September 4, Bopha was charged with intentional violence and summarily detained. According to civil society groups, the court failed to explain and specify full accounts of the alleged crime.
Another arrest and detention of land rights activist Tim Sakmony took place one day after the detention of Yorm Bopha. Tim Sakmony is a representative of some 300 evicted families from Borei Keila community. Borei Keila land was granted to Phanimex company to develop the area for commercial purposes. In a contract with the government, Phanimex was obliged to construct 10 replacement apartments for the evicted families, but built only 8 apartment buildings, leaving around 300 families out of the contract. As a result, these families were still living on the site until their houses well bulldozed and demolished by the company in a violent eviction in January 2012. The operation was overseen and assisted by the police. These families have been demanding for their apartments that the company had promised.
Sakmony has been advocating for the 300 evicted families in Borei Keila, including her 49-year-old disabled son. Then, on September 5, 2012, she was arrested, detained and charged with making a false statement under article 633 of Cambodia’s Penal Code in an attempt to secure an apartment for her son. The charge was filed by Phanimex company owner Suy Sophan.
After the arrests and summary detention of the land activists in just two days, hundreds of residents from both Boeung Kak and Borei Keila communities staged demonstrations to demand the release of their representatives.
The local civil society groups have condemned the summary detention of the two land rights advocates stating that this is another means by which to silence the dissenting voices and victimized communities.
Land grabbing has been a pressing concern and a by-product of various human rights abuses in Cambodia. Land grabbing happens in the form of economic land concessions which are granted to private companies as part of development policies. Economic land concessions have been granted on forest areas and farmlands where community people have been living for years without the involvement of the communities. Thus, such concessions have become a boiling dispute across the country. Poor compliance with the law in force and corruption even escalate the problem. The private companies fail to give fair compensation for the land to the people while the government officials turn a blind eye to the problem.
In most cases, people are chased from their homes and lands in violent and ruthless evictions. As a result, people stand up to resist the eviction with whatever they have at hands such as sticks and stones and have clashes with the security forces. People are injured, arrested, detained and even killed during the eviction. People take to the streets to find justice and to protect their homes and lands; however, they have been ignored by the government. Economic land concessions are believed to promise development of the living standards and well-beings of the people; in contrast, such concessions have brought about negative impacts on rural communities, illegal land grabbing, deforestations and serious human rights violations.
Please write a letter to the following authorities to voice your concern about the case. The authorities must release these two activists. Please urge the court that they should ensure this case is reviewed thoroughly to afford possibility of remedies to the victims.
The AHRC will write a separate letter to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia calling for his intervention into this matter.



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