The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday sentenced Tep Vanny and six fellow activists to a year in prison, moments after convicting them of obstructing traffic for placing a bed in the middle of Monivong Boulevard on Monday to protest the flooding of their neighborhood.
“We charged them under Article 78 of the Traffic Law and then we sentenced them to one year and fined them 2 million riel [about $500],” said presiding Judge Mong Mony Saophea, declining to answer further questions.
Judge Mony Saophea’s sentence was the maximum allowed by law.
The seven women were arrested Monday in front of City Hall after Daun Penh district security guards had pushed the bed off the road.
The stunt was meant to draw attention to the repeated flooding of their Boeng Kak homes, which they ascribe to the filling in of a local lake for a development project backed by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin. The protesters complained that their homes had been inundated with fetid water for days, and were demanding that the city clear the surrounding drains immediately.
“It is not justice for them because they went to exercise their rights and ask the authorities to help them,” Ham Sunrith, one of the lawyers for the women, said after the trial.
“They just went to ask City Hall to deal with the flooding in their area, but the authorities arrested them and charged them under the Traffic Law,” he added.
Mr. Sunrith said he would speak with the women to decide whether to appeal the decision.
“They were just exercising their rights under the Constitution, which guarantees the people’s health,” said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, who attended the trial. “The state’s development project caused the flooding, so the authorities are responsible for finding a solution for them.”
Of the seven women sentenced Tuesday, five already had standing convictions from a 2012 case related to their protests against the evictions then taking place in Boeng Kak to make way for Mr. Meng Khin’s project.
In that case, the municipal court charged the “Boeng Kak 13” with obstructing public officials and illegally occupying land. It sentenced them to two-and-a-half years in jail on the same day.
The Appeal Court released them a month later after reducing their sentences to time served, but upheld the convictions.
After Tuesday’s sentencing, the women—Ms. Vanny, Nget Khun, Song Sreyleap, Kong Chantha, Pan Chunreth, Bop Chorvy and Nong Sreng—were bundled into a waiting van and driven off. The seven were sent to Prey Sar prison, according to Mr. Sam Ath.
During breaks from proceedings earlier in the day, the women expressed no remorse for having dragged a bed onto the road.
“We did not intend to block the road, but City Hall forced us into it,” Ms. Vanny said. “We did nothing wrong. The court should call in City Hall because it’s obligated to find a solution for us.”
Ms. Vanny went so far as to accuse authorities of causing the flooding to punish them for offering their homes as shelter to a group of out-of-town protesters.
As the women were being questioned, four more people were arrested outside the courthouse while protesting peacefully for their release.
Police told the demonstrators they had no right to gather in front of the court and gave them 20 minutes to clear out.
When the protesters refused to move, police and Prampi Makara district security guards arrested monk Soeung Hai, Boeng Kak resident Heng Pich, Boeng Kak evictee Im Srey Touch and Puong Sopheap of the Thma Koul neighborhood near the Phnom Penh International Airport, whose residents are also under threat of eviction.
Shortly after the arrests, deputy municipal police chief Chuon Narin said the four had merely been detained, not arrested, but failed to explain the distinction.
“We did not arrest them, but we detained them because they interfered with the work of the municipal court,” he said. “We will follow the procedures and send them to the police station.”
Municipal police officials could not be reached in the afternoon.
Moeun Tola, a program director for the Community Legal Education Center, said court staff told lawyers for his NGO that the four would be sent to court for questioning Wednesday.