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

September 12, 2012

ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION - URGENT APPEALS PROGRAMME

Urgent Appeal Case: AHRC-UAC-170-2012

12 September 2012
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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
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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.

CASE NARRATIVE:

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.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS:

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.

SUGGESTED ACTION:
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.

To support this appeal, please click here: 

SAMPLE LETTER:

Dear ___________,

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

Name of the victims:
Ms. Tim Sakmony (65), the resident and representative of Borei Keila community
Ms. Yorm Bopha (29), the resident and representative of Boeung Kak Lake community

Alleged perpetrators: Phnom Penh police officers

Date of incident: September 4 & 5, 2012

Place of incident: Phnom Penh

Place of detention: Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh

I am writing to voice my deep concern regarding the detention of the two land activists who were arrested and charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with different alleged crimes.
The first victim is Ms. Yorm Bopha (29), who was arrested by plain-clothed police on September 4, 2012 and charged with intentional violence. The other victim is Ms. Tim Sakmony (65), who was arrested on the next day and charged with making a false statement. They are currently serving pre-trial detention at Prey Sor (CC2) prison. These two well-known and outspoken activists have since been advocating for the interest and protection of the land and houses of people in their communities from being grabbed by well-connected and powerful business tycoons.

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 in a number of occasions. On August 07 2012, the suspect was seen around Bopha’s car at Boeung Kak, and then the residents beat him. At that time, Bopha was not present in the scene and was never questioned by the police. Then, on September 04, Bopha was charged with intentional violence and summarily detained. According to civil society groups, the court failed to explain and specify on 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 and said this is another means to silence the dissenting voices and victimized communities.

I therefore request your intervention in this case to immediately free the two land-rights activists. I also urge the concerned state authorities to review the case and instigate proper investigation into the alleged crimes so as to bring justice to the victims.

Yours sincerely,

--------------------
PLEASE SEND YOUR LETTERS TO:

1. Mr. Hun Sen
Prime Minister
Office of the Prime Minister
Phnom Penh
CAMBODIA
Fax: +855 23 36 06 66 / 855 23 88 06 24 (c/o Council of Ministers)
Email: leewood_phu@nida.gov.kh

2. Mr. Ang Vong Vathna
Minister of Justice
No 240, Sothearos Blvd
Phnom Penh
CAMBODIA
Fax: +855 23 364119
Email: moj@cambodia.gov.kh

3. Mr. Sar Kheng
Minister of Interior
No. 275 Norodom Blvd.
Phnom Penh
CAMBODIA
Fax/phone: +855 23 721 905, 023 726 052/721 190
Email: moi@interior.gov.kh

4. Prof. Surya Subedi
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia
No. 10, St. 302, Sangkat Boeng Keng Kang 1
Chan Chamcarmon
Phnom Penh
CAMBODIA
Fax: +855 23 212 579
Email: cambodia@ohchr.org


Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Programme
Asian Human Rights Commission (ua@ahrc.asia)

Document Type :
Urgent Appeal Case
Document ID :
AHRC-UAC-170-2012
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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.