Thirteen land-rights activists from the Boeng Kak neighborhood appeared Wednesday at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh for a final appeal in a yearslong legal battle over a protest-related conviction.
The 13 women, who have become well known for their fierce protests against their eviction at the hands of a senator’s real estate firm, were arrested near Boeng Kak in May 2012 when security forces attempted to disperse them as they protested on the contested land.
Video from the incident shows the women singing a protest song while surrounded by police and security guards before a guard jostles a woman’s arm and a shoving match breaks out. However, City Hall accused the activists of using axes, hammers and metal rods against the security forces.
The women were charged with aggravated obstruction of public officials and illegal occupation and summarily jailed. Rights groups dubbed them “the Boeng Kak 13” and mounted a campaign for their release that drew international attention, culminating in a Court of Appeal decision the next month that reduced their sentences to time served, setting them free immediately.
However, the women are still refusing to accept the guilty verdict and want it reversed by the Supreme Court.
“I appealed because I was unhappy that verdicts from the Court of Appeal and Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced me when I did not commit the crime I was charged with,” Tep Vanny, 35, told the court.
“I carried nothing, and what they have accused me of is an exaggeration,” she said. “I couldn’t defend my own house; how could I have the power to encroach on privately owned land and obstruct public officials?”
Another of the accused, Song Sreyleap, 31, said the women wanted their names cleared.
“I want the Supreme Court to provide justice and give us a clean record. It has been four years. I don’t want to hear that we have committed an offense.”
A lawyer for the group called for all of the charges to be dropped, citing previous arguments made by witnesses and journalists at the scene of the original protest who have said the women had not been armed.
“Do you have any evidence to show any one of my clients carried axes or hammers?” San Sokunthea asked.
“We saw many police arrest them and carry them like pigs into pick-up trucks.”
Deputy prosecutor general Chhuon Chantha offered no such evidence, saying only, “The Court of Appeal made the correct decision,” and asking judges to “consider the law.”
A final verdict in the case will be handed down on March 16.