The Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday charged four female Boeng Kak lake residents with insulting police and obstructing public officials during a protest that turned violent on Monday. Earlier in the day, dozens of villagers were blocked by riot police from leaving the lake area, resulting in a second day of clashes with police.
Kong Chantha, Bo Chhorvy, Heng Mom and Tep Vanny were arrested separately on Monday during a series of violent clashes with police outside City Hall on Monivong Boulevard.
The protesting residents are demanding that 94 Boeng Kak families be included in a 12.44-hectare plot of land that Prime Minister Hun Sen said would be set aside for residents who are refusing to be evicted from the lake area. No reason has been given for the exclusion of the 94 families from the prime minister’s deal.
The four charged women were released from custody at about 3:30 pm following questioning. Ironically, the women who were arrested for protesting against their eviction are now forbidden from moving house without permission from Investigating Judge Chhey Virak. According to court documents, the women are also warned against “inciting” others until their trial, for which no date has yet been set.
The charge of insulting police is punishable by one to six days in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 riel, or about $25. The charge of “opposing public officials,” which the Penal Code calls an “aggravated crime,” carries a prison term of between six months to one year and a fine of up to 2 million riel, or about $500.
Speaking after their release from the court, Ms Mom and Ms Vanny remained defiant and vowed to continue the fight for their land at Boeng Kak.
“Even though we were pressured by the court, we never gave up and we are stronger in our bid to demand our land,” Ms Mom said. Her husband, Sok Tong Heng, echoed her point.
“We have the right of expression,” he said.
Ms Vanny said: “Villagers have the right to criticize [the authorities]…. If the public officials don’t want us to criticize them, they should resign.”
Earlier yesterday morning, about 100 residents of Boeng Kok, the majority of whom were women, attempted to walk toward Monivong Boulevard from the lake area but were confronted by about 70 municipal police, military police and intervention police holding riots shields and wearing helmets who blocked their path.
A standoff ensued, but quickly turned rough when a group of women surged forward and one tried to grab a riot shield from a police officer. Monk Sing Tonlly tried to quell the tensions by urging the protesters and the riot police to keep three meters apart. “Please keep a three-meter space from each other in order to have a peaceful discussion and seek a solution,” he said.
But the scuffle intensified, the police pushed forward, forcing villagers to retreat. The women then picked up rocks and stones and began to lob them at police.
After the protesters retreated and dispersed, a female villager and a motorcycle taxi driver tried to leave the area, but were prevented from doing so under threat of arrest.
“We were told we would be arrested if we tried to leave,” said the motorcycle taxi driver who declined to give his name for fear of retribution by the authorities
Phsar Thmei I commune police chief Nou Punthol said the police operation was simply directed at preventing the residents from blocking traffic, as they had done the day before.
“We never used any force or violence against the villagers,” he said. “We just blocked them to keep public order. If we allowed them to go [out of Boeng Kak], they would have caused a traffic jam.”
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor with rights group Adhoc, said there was no provision in the law to allow police to block people from moving around freely.
“There is no provision in the law that says the authorities can block anyone while they are protesting,” he said.
A joint statement by Bridges Across Borders, the Community Legal Education Center, the Housing Rights Task Force and Licadho condemned the charges against the four protestors, but welcomed the women’s release by the court.
“We call upon the authorities to drop the charges against Tep Vanny, Bo Chhorvy, Heng Mom and Kong [Chantha] and enter into peaceful dialogue with [Boeng] Kak community representatives in order to address their legitimate grievances,” the groups said in the statement.
Amnesty International called on the government to cease “targeting activists who are peacefully defending their communities’ rights.”
Monk Loun Sovath, who is respected among the Boeng Kak community for his activism in support of their cause, called government to treat the residents fairly. “As a monk, I appeal to the government to think about the suffering and happiness of people and prioritize one of those things.”
(Reported by Sok Sidon, Lauren Crothers and Cheng Sokhorng)