Human rights groups have condemned the conviction and imprisonment of 13 women from Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak lake community who are involved in a prominent land dispute.
According to rights groups, 13 women were sentenced last week to two and a half years in prison for the "obstruction of public officials with aggravating circumstances" under Cambodia's penal code, and for illegally occupying property under the country's land law, two days after their arrest at a demonstration.
Five of them reportedly had six months of their sentences suspended, and another woman in her 70s had one and a half years suspended, in a trial that lasted about three hours.
Local media reported that the women were lending support to a family attempting to rebuild a house at the lakeside, when authorities detained them.
The women are from the Boeung Kak lake community, which is at the center of an enduring land dispute in the Cambodian capital.
Thousands of families have been evicted from around the lake since 2007, when the city granted a 99-year lease for 133 hectares of land for development to a private company run by a senator from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Last August, after years of protests by residents calling for adequate compensation, Prime Minister Hun Sen designated 12.44 hectares of land on-site for families that had yet to accept compensation offers.
Many families have since received land titles while others say they were excluded. Residents have asked that authorities demarcate the boundaries of the land granted by the government.
An end to violence
In a joint statement released after the trial of the 13 women, four local NGOs called for an end to "violent responses to peaceful demonstrations" and described their convictions as "baseless."
"The speed with which the trial began and ended, and the court's refusal to follow Cambodian law, reveals a complete disregard for the fundamental rights of Cambodian citizens," Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, said in the statement.
"Under no circumstances should an individual be required to defend themselves against serious felony charges within an hour of them being filed."
According to the statement, two protesters outside the court on Thursday who were prepared to testify as defense witnesses were also detained.
Moreover, religious officials and men wearing plain clothes hustled Buddhist monk Loun Sovath - an outspoken activist - into a car and drove him to Wat Botum in Phnom Penh. He was later released.
Government spokespeople and Justice Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.
A complex issue
Land rights are a complex issue in Cambodia, with many lacking proper documentation since land ownership was abolished under the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled the country from 1975 to1979.
Earlier this month, a 14-year-old girl was shot dead in the eastern province of Kratie during an armed clash between official forces and villagers reportedly embroiled in a land dispute with a private company.
Hun Sen recently ordered a moratorium on new economic land concessions, in a move that has been tentatively welcomed by observers.
The freeze was announced shortly after the shock death of environmental activist Chut Wutty, shot last month in the southwestern province of Koh Kong while investigating suspected illegal logging.
Rights workers have voiced concerns that the situation for activists in Cambodia may be worsening.
Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told DW that protests were increasing partly because many people felt they could not depend on the justice system.
"If people see they cannot have any hope in the judiciary, they take to the streets and the government ... responds by trying to suppress these protests," he said.
Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International's researcher on Cambodia, said in an email that it seemed there was not even an attempt to make the trial involving the women appear fair.
He added that the deteriorating human rights situation was "unexpected" given Cambodia is chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and lobbying for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and that the ruling party is contesting commune elections this year and a national election in 2013.
"[It] may therefore raise questions as to whether this crackdown is directed from the center, or whether in fact the central government is losing control over what’s going on at the locality," Abbott said.
Commune elections are set to take place on June 3.
Author: Mary Kozlovski
Editor: Anne Thomas