My first week in Cambodia has been quite eventful. After long delays throughout the trip, I arrived in Phnom Penh late Wednesday night. By 8am the next morning, I was outside of the Phnom Penh Court of First Instance observing a demonstration against the arrest of thirteen women, known as the Boeung Kak 13.
Boeung Kak Lake (BKL) is located in the center of Phnom Penh, which makes it attractive to development companies. One such company, Shukaku Inc, was granted a 99-year lease for the land in February 2007. Since then, the families living in the area have faced the risk of forced eviction to make way for the development. The thirteen women, all leading activists, were arrested for peacefully protesting, i.e., singing and delivering speeches, against the development company on Tuesday, May 22.
On Thursday, May 24, the women were taken to the Court of First Instance for a hearing. While BKL residents, mostly women and children, gathered outside the court to call for the women’s release, the police arrested two other BKL activists. The arrested activists just happened to be the witnesses that were going to testify at the Boeung Kak 13’s trial. The activists’ lawyer walked out after being barred from speaking with their clients, seeing the case file and evidence, and calling witnesses. Ultimately, the court sentenced the women to two-and-a-half years in Prey Sar prison on charges of rebellion and illegal occupation of land after a three-hour trial; several activists’ had six months, one even had one-and-a-half years, of their sentence suspended.
Furthermore, police and senior monks arrested the Venerable Loun Sovath, a Buddhist monk and leading human rights defender, for observing the BKL demonstration. He was subsequently detained and forced to sign an agreement to no longer engage in protests or demonstrations. Regardless, he has avowed to continue supporting human rights victims.
For more information on Boeung Kak and recent events go to:
Phnom Penh Supreme Court
The following day was no less eventful; I observed another landmark case, but this time I was seated in the front row of the Phnom Penh Supreme Court. In August 2010, a staff member of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), Leang Sokchoeun, was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of disinformation for allegedly distributing political pamphlets. In July 2011, an appeals court not only upheld the conviction, but also changed the criminal charge to incitement.
The defense raised four major issues with the conviction: 1) the name and relevant information on the arrest warrant did not match Leang Sokchoeun; 2) the day that Leang Sokchoeun supposedly engaged in the illegal activity he was at work in a different province, which was corroborated by witness testimonies; 3) the prosecutor could not establish any motive or significant link between Leang Sokchoeun and his alleged cohorts; and, most significantly, 4) the appeals court convicted Leang Sokchoeun of a charge that did not exist at the time of the alleged crime and that he never had the opportunity to refute.
Despite these substantive and procedural problems, the Supreme Court swiftly upheld the conviction by dismissing the factual discrepancies as mere lies and asserting that the appeals court had the authority to change charges.
For more information on this case, go to:
Apparently, I have arrived in Cambodia just in time to experience landmark cases that underscore the significance of the rule of law and the tragedies that result when it is abandoned. Hopefully, I will also be able to observe the positive impact that the human rights defenders and the international community may have on the Cambodian government’s adherence to the rule of law.
My first week, however, wasn’t all work. Over the weekend, I visited the National Museum, the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, Wat Ounalom, and the Central Market. Sitting in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, you can see the beautiful vista where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers converge. Ultimately, Phnom Penh is a striking mixture of old and new, luxury and poverty, East and West.
Cambodia Vietnam Friendship Memorial Riverfront
Wat Phnom Royal Palace
National Museum of Cambodia Royal Palace
Monk walking in front of Royal Palace