PHNOM PENH – Cambodia’s highest court released an activist on bail Friday after she served more than a year in prison on charges widely condemned as trumped up to silence a government critic.
The Supreme Court sent Yorm Bopha’s case back to the Appeals Court for further investigation and a possible retrial.
Yorm Bopha, 30, was imprisoned in September 2012 and sentenced by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to three years in jail last December on charges of plotting “intentional violence” against two men.
Human rights groups said there was inconsistent testimony and no evidence against her, and that the conviction was the result of government interference with the courts. They allege she was convicted because of her activism against her community’s forced eviction from the Boeung Kak Lake area of Phnom Penh.
The Cambodian government leased the land to a development company with ruling party ties in 2007, and thousands of people were villagers out of their homes.
The case has drawn wide international notice. In an Amnesty International campaign, thousands of people from around the world wrote appeals and signed petitions calling for Yorm Bopha’s release.
Supreme Court Judge Kim Ponn said the Appeals Court must reinvestigate the case because the evidence was inconclusive. The Appeals Court in June upheld the municipal court’s conviction of Yorm Bopha but suspended one year of her sentence.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said in a statement: “It has been clear from the very beginning of this case that Yorm Bopha has been targeted for her activism in the context of the (Boeung Kak) community’s struggle for their rights. While today’s decision to temporarily release Bopha from jail is a welcome step, we must urge the Appeal Court to act quickly and to put an end to the suffering of (Yorm) Bopha and her family once and for all.”
Yorm Bopha, the mother of a 10-year-old son, told reporters in the courtroom Friday that she was dissatisfied with the top court’s ruling because it meant she could be arrested again for her activism at any time. “I am totally disappointed with the decision of the court today. I have never committed any crimes, and I wanted the court to drop all charges against me,” she said.
Political analyst Kem Ley said the Supreme Court may have faced pressure to release Yorm Bopha because of international attention, as well as a sharp decline in the ruling party’s share of the vote in recent parliamentary elections. Land grabs and lack of judicial independence were key issues in July elections that saw Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party lose 22 seats, leaving it with only a slight majority.