The Supreme Court on Friday temporarily freed jailed Boeng Kak anti-eviction activist Yorm Bopha on bail, but sent her case back to the Court of Appeal to be reinvestigated.
During the hearing, which lasted 90 minutes, dozens of monks and several hundred supporters of the jailed activist, who spent 444 days in jail, rallied outside the Supreme Court building where they banged drums, gave speeches and marched in procession on the streets around the courthouse.
The noise was clearly audible inside the court where a panel of five judges took only 15 minutes to deliberate.
“The Supreme Court decides to temporarily release Yorm Bopha on bail and sends this case to the Appeal Court to reinvestigate and hear the case again,” presiding Judge Khim Pon told the packed courtroom.
He said there is enough evidence to prove Ms. Bopha’s brothers, Yorm Kanlong and Yorm Sith, beat two motorcycle taxi drivers, but in reference to Ms. Bopha’s involvement in the attack, he said “the Court of Appeal decided some right and some wrong.”
Ms. Bopha’s brothers are at large, but she was arrested, along with her husband, Luos Sakhorn, on September 4, 2012, and convicted of ordering the assault on the two men. Her husband was released. She was originally handed a three-year prison sentence, but the Appeal Court suspended it one year after upholding the verdict in June.
Human rights groups and fellow anti-eviction activists have long said the charges against Ms. Bopha are politically motivated and without substance. On Friday, those groups were measured in their responses to the court’s decision.
During the hearing, Ms. Bopha protested her innocence, claiming that she had not conspired to have the two men beaten, nor did she know what had happened.
The mother of one was visibly unhappy with the outcome of the hearing at the court, during which she had maintained her composure, occasionally turning around to smile at her supporters in the courtroom.
“I am disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision,” she said after the verdict was read out.
“Even though I am free, my case is still before the court,” she said, adding that she is afraid of being rearrested and tried again like Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the two men wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of Free Trade Union leader Chea Vichea and only acquitted after they spent years in jail.
“I still demand that the court drop the whole charge, because I did not commit the crime,” she said.
After leaving the court, Ms. Bopha was bundled into a waiting police van and taken back to PJ Prison. She was finally released at 5:40 p.m. and about 100 Boeng Kak residents gathered outside the prison to celebrate her freedom.
Outside the court, the crowd erupted in a mixture of jubilation and anger on hearing the decision.
Boeng Kak activist Tep Vanny also had mixed feelings about the decision, saying that she was happy with the bail decision but frustrated that the case remains before the courts.
Rupert Abbott, researcher for Amnesty International in Cambodia, said Ms. Bopha, who Amnesty considers a prisoner of conscience, should never have been arrested in the first place.
“Amnesty International welcomes Yorm Bopha’s release today, but we’re disappointed that it’s only bail and that the case continues,” Mr. Abbott said.
“We are concerned that her case is quite symbolic of a trend in Cambodia, in which human rights defenders face harassment,” he said.
“The trend has to be reversed. Today is a day to celebrate, but we have to be measured in our happiness, because the result is not as much as we hoped for.”