Perhaps this reduces my credibility as a law student, but yesterday, I attended for the first time a hearing at the Appeal Court. My experience was not quite what I envisioned when I first set foot in law school.
Here is some background on the case I witnessed…
In 2007, the government leased the Boeung Kak Lake and its surroundings for 99 years to Shukaku, a company owned by a ruling-party Senator. Over the last 4 years, Shukaku has filled the lake and forcefully evicted virtually the 3,500 families living in the area. Minimal compensation was paid to some, but most families received nothing. Since then, the Boeung Kak community has been fighting to defend its land rights and to receive fair compensation. Over the years, they have staged numerous peaceful demonstration and protests to resist the injustice their community is facing.
On the morning of May 22nd, 2012, as part of a media event, the18 families from the Boeung Kak community gathered on the sand dunes that covered their homes. As one of the family, equipped with a few pieces of wood, attempted to erect poles to mark the locations of their destroyed home, the police arrived at the site, confiscated the wood and disrupted the media event. In support of the 18 families, a group of residents remained on site, singing songs about land rights. At around noon, a mixed force of police and district guards, who sought to disperse them, surrounded a small group of women. This is when 13 women for Boeung Kak Lake were violently arrested.
Less than 3 days after their arrest, the 13 women were at the municipal court. The defense lawyers were refused access to the case file and state evidence, and they were not permitted to call witnesses. Moreover, two communities members who came to the trial to serve as witnesses were arrested outside of the municipal court and placed in pretrial detention until June 15, 2010 when they were released under judicial supervision, but the charges against them are still pending. This expedient and irregular trial was concluded on convictions of violating articles 34 and 259 of the 2001 Land Law and article 504 of the Penal Code. Article 34 of the Land Law states that any “illegal occupant” of certain property shall be subject to article 259, which provides for imprisonment of one to five years. Penal Code article 504 describes the crime of obstruction of public officials with aggravating circumstances. It allows for six months to one year in prison. The women were all sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.
So here we are. A bit more than one month after the 13 women`s arrest. The appeal is set for 7:30am. Typically, Court hearings don`t start until 9am, but this time the judiciary was hoping that an early start would deter supporters from attending. The case has received a lot of international attention over the past few weeks. One colleague was invented to the Rio Summit to present a video on the Boeung Kak Lake women. And just last week, I translated letters written by the children of the 13 asking Hillary Clinton to free their mothers and very nicely wishing her good health and success in her work. Obviously, the early start did not have much effect on the supporters as more than 500 community members, NGO staff, journalist and friends sought to gather outside the Court armed with t-shirts, headbands, banners and lotus flowers. But the police was there before us and made sure to block all the roads leading up to the Appeal Court, which apparently, on that day, was not a public building. Blocked by police and military, the supporters started singing in support of the 13. I was at the south end of the blockade, where everything went smoothly. But meanwhile, at the north end, the police violently sought to disperse the crowd, resulting in three supporters being hospitalized, including a miscarriage caused by the police`s brutality.
The hearing was slightly delayed and started at 8:30. At about 9:30, I decided I wanted to find a way into the appeal court. So very subtly, I cross the barricade, and by subtly, I mean wearing a t-shirt and a headband that screamed “Free the 15”…Looking very confident, I walk passed the crowd of policeman…and nobody sought to prevent me from going ahead. Arriving at the Appeal Court, there were once again loads of guards blocking the entrance to the courtroom, which was packed with about 40 people, including representatives from USAID, the US embassy, the EU, ONOHCHR, the media and several local and international NGOs. After about an hour, I managed to sneak into the room and strategically placed myself behind an interpreter. The hearing was shocking for anyone who has studied the basics of a fair trial…and apparently, the judges were more humane and attentive than LICADHO`s staff had ever seen, and they see lots of trials! The woman came forth one after the other explaining the events of May 22nd and stating over and over again that they did not commit any violence and that they charges were unfounded. The judge kept on asking the women “well, if you did not do anything wrong, why weere you arrested?”. I thought the whole purpose of trials was to determine whether the accused is guilty, but apparently, in this judge`s mind, if you are arrested, then you must have done something wrong.
The LICADHO defense lawyers had called 4 witnesses to testify, but three of them were prevented by the police from approaching the courthouse. And during her testimony, the only witness heard was threatened by the judge to be fined if she did not answer a question asked by the prosecutor to which she did not know the answer. A few of the women had to leave the room at different time because they started crying or were not feeling well. And once the lawyers on each side stated their desired outcome, one of the women stood up and asked justice to the judge. The judge looked at her, not too sure, and asked her, so what is it that you want. So she repeated. He asked her again, “what do you want?”. She said liberation. And then he said, “so, you want us to drop the charges?”. At this point, it was clear that since the beginning of this case, two distinct languages were being stated. After about 4:30 of hearing, the judges left the room to “deliberate” or perhaps to eat, by then it was noon, and judges in Cambodia are notorious for deliberating very rapidly after long hearings and coming back 10 minutes later with the ruling on a typed document… During the judges` absence, the courtroom went crazy. Journalist and photographers invaded the small room to take picture and gather a few comments from the women. A mini press conference staged itself in the courtroom. Security guards even had to intervene to prevent photographers from standing on the judges benches to get pictures.
So here I am thinking. Wow, this case has indeed attracted a lot of attention. The convictions cannot be maintained, it is not worth it for the government. But how will it achieve its goal of putting hurdles in the way of land rights activists, and make sure not to loose face, but still release the women. A few minutes later, I had my answer. The judges came back, went on about the right to protest, the fact that the women are mothers and that their families need them, but also that what they did was wrong…blablabla…and then said, they were suspending the sentence to 1 month and 3 days, which meant that the women were to be released that day. But which also meant that the charges were not dropped and the women now have a criminal record for offenses they did not commit.
The criminal record did not seem to bother them or the community members. The protest turned into a street party with people swinging and dancing. In the courthouse, all the women started to cry. Some of them got on their knees and bowed to the judges out of thankfulness. Everyone was hugging, smiling, cheering. The women said goodbye lovingly to their prison guards and were taken back to the prison to prepare their release. The community followed them to the prison. Again, about 500 supporters gathered outside of the prison gates waiting for the women to be released. Supporters were dancing. There were drummers, balloons, jasmine flowers, and children playing everywhere. Despite the 7 hours wait between the ruling and the time the women walked out of the prison, the energy outside the prison remained high.
Once again, the party moved, this time to Boeung Kak Lake, where a stage was erected, food prepared and musicians were playing. When I arrived, the women were on stage, making speeches and thanking everyone for their support. The atmosphere was hectic, despite the criminal conviction and despite the fact that now the community is back to square one. One battle was won, the women were released, but it is important to remember that many families still remain arbitrarily excluded from receiving land titles and that the 12,44 hectares of land that was given to the remaining lake families in compensation has not been demarcated yet. Whilst the families of the women can rejoice in being reunited with their loved ones, the community`s fight for their land and their rights continues.