On Friday, tourists could not access the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. It was closed as next door one of the most important cases of the year was reviewed by the judges of the Supreme Court of Cambodia. Shortly after noon, it was decided; Yorm Bopha, 30, was released on bail and her case is sent back to the Appeal Court. One of her lawyers admitted to the local press he was still worried about her. Outside the court, once the news of her release was heard, supporters were relieved and their songs of joy echoed through the streets.
A land activist living in the Boeung Kak community, Yorm Bopha was arrested by the Phnom Penh Municipal Police on September 4, 2012 and sentenced on December 27 to three years in prison. The Municipal Court sentenced her under Article 218 of the Cambodian Criminal Code: “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” and ordered her to pay 30,000,000 riels (US$7,500) in compensation. She is accused of instigating an assault on two motorcycle taxi drivers. Her husband, Mr. Lous Sakhorn, was charged under the same provision but released on bail. On the June 5 and 14, 2013, the Appeal Court heard Bopha’s case – it was rejected. Though one year of her sentence was suspended.
Human rights organisations have been calling for her release ever since the activist’s arrest. Amnesty International declared Bopha “a prisoner of conscience” and described the charges against her as “fabricated”. When the Supreme Court started to issue the verdict, smiles could be noticed everywhere in the courtroom. The audience was hanging on to the judges’ every word. As the Appeal Court failed to provide enough arguments in its decision, the Supreme Court found it could not issue a ruling and sent the case back to the Appeal Court.
“I am here as a citizen because I am concerned for the justice in my country”, Yeng Virak told Asian Correspondent before the verdict was announced. The director of the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), Virak explained that his organisation is providing free legal advice to Yorm Bopha. “Bopha remained strong and she was confident when answering the questions of the judge that she did not commit any crime,” he continued.
Yorm Bopha was threatened many times by the authorities prior to her arrest. She is a strong critic of the Phnom Penh Municipal Authority, which forcefully evicted her community from Boeung Kak Lake in January 2012. The land dispute she was involved in started in 2007, when her community’s land was claimed for a commercial development in central Phnom Penh by Shukaku Inc – a company owned by Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) Senator Lao Meng Khin. Together with her fellow female activists, Bopha initiated a wave of anti-eviction protests leading to the birth of a larger land rights movement in the Cambodian capital. Two other women-led groups joined in the protests and used the same tactics as their “Boeung Kak Lake sisters” to oppose forced evictions and call for fair compensation.
Birth of a new movement
While women are often perceived as defenceless “soft targets” in forced evictions, Dr Katherine Brickell, Senior Lecturer of Human Geography at Royal Holloway University, UK asserts that the Phnom Penh activists have successfully challenged that assumption. With lotuses held up in their hands and songs on their lips, they use their status as wives and mothers to shame the riot police whenever they are publicly beaten. “By harnessing softness as a strategy rather than a hindrance, these women have committed themselves to a sustained campaign of non-violent protest…and are playing a critical leadership role in publicly contesting large-scale losses of homes that are being felt in communities sadly too numerous to name,” Brickell wrote in her article for The Guardian newspaper.
This morning, songs and lotus flowers were there again, leaving the streets full of petals. Singing and praying for the future of their community, Boeung Kak Lake residents arrived early to show their support. A woman stood out in the crowd, dressed in white, holding banana leaves as the sceptre of justice, her face painted half in black and half in white she chanted “free my daughter”. Yorm Bopha was freed today before 6pm after paperwork was completed by the court and the prison authorities. Boeung Kak will hold a party tonight to welcome her home.
Ruom Collective2013 – Clothilde Le Coz & Marta Kasztelan
This article has been corrected on November 23rd. The previous version was mentioning Yorm Bopha had been sentenced under article 214 of the penal code while she has been sentenced under article 218. As stated by the Cambodian NGO ADHOC, for total accuracy, it should read Mr. Lous Sakhorn was sentenced under the same provision. He was charged but later sentenced.