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Harsh sentences handed down to Cambodian activists

UPDATE: Supreme Court keeps activist jailed (Human Rights Watch, 29 March 2013)

(CCHR/IFEX) - 27 December 2012 - As one of the darkest years for Cambodian human rights defenders in recent times draws to a close, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights ("CCHR") expresses its profound disappointment in the harsh sentences handed down to Borei Keila activist, Ms Tim Sakmony, and Boeng Kak activist, Ms Yorm Bopha by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, convicted on spurious charges.

Tim Sakmony was sentenced yesterday, 26 December 2012, to six months' imprisonment, albeit the sentence was suspended for time already served, for allegedly making a "false declaration" - in the context of requesting additional housing following her community's brutal eviction on 3 January 2012 - under Article 633 of the Penal Code 2009. Yorm Bopha, on the other hand, was sentenced today, 27 December 2012, to a staggering three years' imprisonment, as well as a sum of 30 million riel (approx. US$7,500) in compensation, for intentional violence with aggravating circumstances under Article 218 of the Penal Code 2009, in relation to allegations that she took part in the beating of two men. Yorm Bopha's two brothers, Yorm Kamhong and Yorm Seth, were sentenced in absentia to the same penalties, while her husband, Lous Sakorm, also received the same sentence but had it suspended. Arrest warrants for her two brothers have now been issued.

Both women, however, were prominent human rights defenders in their respective communities, and both appear to have been punished for speaking out against the authorities. Prosecution lawyers for Phanimex Company even included details of Tim Sakmony's activism as evidence for the prosecution, despite her actions having nothing to do with the charges, and being protected by domestic and international laws on freedom of expression. And, despite there being no difference between the evidence submitted as regards Yorm Bopha and her husband, it is very telling that Yorm Bopha, a key community activist, was dealt by far the tougher punishment.

Yet again, it would seem that the Cambodian courts have shamelessly underlined their subservience to the executive branch of the government. Yet again, Cambodians have been painfully reminded that the rule of law is still just a pipedream. Rather, in another depressing week for freedom of expression in Cambodia, it is yet again abundantly clear that "rule by law" and "might is right" rule the day. As 2012 has worn on, as the sentencing of Mam Sonando, the closing of the Chut Wutty murder case, and the dropping of the charges against Chhouk Bandith have all sunk in, shock has turned to outrage, and fear to anger.

Already, protests have started, sparking off immediately once news of the verdicts of Yorm Bopha, her husband and brothers filtered through to community members waiting outside the courtroom. Police have reportedly used force, including electric batons and tazer guns to intimidate and suppress the protestors, with at least three women injured by electric batons.

CCHR President Ou Virak comments:

"I can't say that I'm surprised by these verdicts, not after the year we've had. I am, however, completely bemused. Where is the logic in these sentences, particularly the outrageous three-year sentence for Yorm Bopha? Not only is this brazen use of the courts to silence dissenters with bogus charges totally contrary to the law, it is also strategically short-sighted. Realistically speaking, Yorm Bopha is being sentenced for leading the protest against the detention of the 13 Boeng Kak women in May; yet what is the most likely outcome following this sentence? More protests. If the government wants people to stop protesting, it should think about protecting its people and addressing their concerns, not slapping them like children, inventing punishments, hoping they'll shut up."

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