Fighting land-grabs in Cambodia; A justice of sorts

In the past decade hundreds of thousands of Cambodians have been pushed off the land they occupy. In the countryside, it is often to make way for rubber plantations developed by government cronies, including Chinese and Vietnamese ones. In the booming capital of Phnom Penh, the government has seized prime development sites from residents who often have been there since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Lacking official title, they have been forced to make way for foreign investors and companies connected to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

The best-known incident was when thousands of families were evicted to make way for an $80-million commercial development at Boeung Kak lake, announced in 2007. Residents decided to fight back. The police had a record of killing men who protested; so local women began to put themselves on the front line, among them Yorm Bopha.

In a decision described by a Cambodian human-rights NGO as a “justice of sorts”, on November 22nd Cambodia’s Supreme Court released Ms Yorm Bopha on bail and, 14 months after her arrest, sent her case back to a lower court for a retrial. The 30-year-old mother had been accused of masterminding an axe attack on two men—charges which human-rights groups say were fabricated to stop her protesting the rampant land-grabbing. “They’re releasing me,” said Ms Yorm Bopha as she left court. “But I’m not completely happy. After all, I did nothing wrong.”

Protests are now common in Phnom Penh, and Ms Yorm Bopha is one of many women in the thick of them. When a group of women activists known as the Boeung Kak 13 were imprisoned following a three-hour trial last year, Ms Yorm Bopha agitated fiercely for their release. Police, she says, warned her that she would be their next target.

Ms Yorm Bopha was soon arrested with her husband, Lous Sakhorn. Despite facing the same charges as his wife, Mr Lous Sakhorn walked free, while Ms Yorm Bopha was ordered into pre-trial detention. During both her trial and her appeal hearing, the two complainants gave conflicting evidence. Rights groups welcomed her release, but said charges should have been dropped entirely.

Outside the court, Ms Yorm Bopha said she was scared she would be arrested again, “just like they did with Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun”. Those two men were wrongfully convicted of murdering a union leader in 2004 . They spent years going in and out of Cambodian jails as their case bounced from one court to another. They were finally acquitted only two months ago.

The threat of rearrest, however, seems not to deter Ms Yorm Bopha. No sooner had she walked out of the prison, to be greeted by supporters cheering in the pouring rain, than she vowed to keep fighting evictions. And less than two days later, on the other side of town, there she was again haranguing military police as they tried to evict a group of residents.