Half a decade after being charged over a violent protest outside City Hall, four activists from Phnom Penh’s embattled Boeng Kak community were sentenced to six months in prison on Monday for insulting and obstructing public officials.
The four were charged soon after the protest in November 2011, during which activists hurled high-heeled shoes, rocks and other objects at security forces that had moved in to disperse them with batons and riot shields.
Activist Bo Chhorvy, center, shouts outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday morning after being sentenced to six months in prison. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily) The case remained dormant until last month, when it was dredged up amid a legal assault on government critics.
Presiding Judge Ly Sokleng handed down the guilty verdict on Monday morning against Tep Vanny, Kong Chantha, Bo Chhorvy and Heng Mom, who was convicted in absentia.
Ms. Chantha and Ms. Chhorvy were allowed to leave the court pending appeal, while Ms. Vanny—the highest profile member of the group—was returned to Prey Sar prison, where she is being held in provisional detention over a separate protest in 2013.
“They did not respect the authorities and they insulted the Phnom Penh municipal officials,” Judge Sokleng said. “They attacked the security guards…. A security guard was hit on the head and another one was injured.”
The defendants remained defiant in the courtroom, repeatedly shouting “injustice!” throughout the hearing.
“I will prepare the document to appeal, because we did not insult and use violence against security guards. It was the opposite: The security guards and police fought us,” Ms. Vanny said.
Ms. Chhorvy said the defendants did not use violence, or even organize the 2011 protest, whose 100-odd participants had jointly decided to deliver a petition to City Hall.
“Now it’s the Pchum Ben festival,” she said. “If I used violence against authorities, then curse me with death.”
After the sentencing, Ms. Chantha and Ms. Chhorvy attempted to get into a prison van with Ms. Vanny, but were blocked by guards. They eventually joined a crowd of about 40 fellow activists gathered across the street from the courthouse, blocked from approaching the building by a similar number of security guards.
During the 2011 protest, the activists demanded that 94 Boeng Kak families be given part of a plot of land that Prime Minister Hun Sen had pledged to set aside for evicted members of the community. Violence broke out when police blocked about 100 women walking* toward Monivong Boulevard.
Activists Kong Chantha, left, and Bo Chhorvy gesture from inside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily) The guilty verdict comes amid a government campaign against the opposition CNRP, human rights activists and other critics.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy is in self-imposed exile to avoid prison, while his deputy, Kem Sokha, was sentenced to five months in prison earlier this month, although he has not been arrested and remains ensconced in the party’s Phnom Penh headquarters.
A long-running “Black Monday” campaign calling for the release of jailed human rights workers and a transparent investigation into the July murder of political analyst Kem Ley ground to a halt—at least temporarily—after the arrest of Ms. Vanny and fellow activist Bov Sophea during a peaceful protest last month.
After returning to the Boeng Kak neighborhood on Monday afternoon, however, both Ms. Chantha and Ms. Chhorvy said they would not kowtow to the government.
“We will keep protesting, although they never allow people to protest if they are speaking against the state,” Ms. Chantha said at the roadside stall where she sells dried fish.
“If they detain me, it will not stop me from doing this, and I will go and join the opposition.”
Ms. Chantha said she was optimistic that U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton—who presented Ms. Vanny with a Vital Voices Global Leadership Award in 2013—would help their cause.
“If Hillary Clinton wins the next election, I believe she will intervene,” she said.
Ms. Chhorvy said the reactivation of the 2011 protest case was a clear attempt to muzzle dissent.
“I think they want to break us,” she said. “They want to break us so that we stay away from protests calling for the release of human rights workers…and the pursuit of justice for Dr. Kem Ley. They want all these issues to go away quietly.”
sovuthy@cambodiadaily.com, odom@cambodiadaily.com, wright@cambodiadaily.com
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