Thirteen women hastily convicted in May after their arrest in a land demonstration were released from jail on Wednesday, following a decision by the Appeals Court.
The women had gone on a hunger strike to protest their detention, but it was the decision of the Appeals Court, who said they had not committed violence against authorities in their protests and should therefore have a reduced sentence, that ultimately freed them.
The women left the court in prison clothes, many of them weeping.
“I am happy today to have justice,” said Tep Vanny, a leading representative of the protesters, who have refused buyouts and relocation at the Boeung Kak development site since 2008.
As the women were being released, about 200 of their fellow Boeung Kak residents were blocked by riot police from demonstrating in front of the court. Police pushed back the protesters, who retaliated by throwing water bottles at them.
The 13 women had been given sentences of up to two and a half years by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, but Appeals Court judge Seng Sivutha said Tuesday he had taken into account the non-violence of their protest, in which they attempted to reconstruct a house that had forcibly demolished, and their children. The judge said they had served adequate time for the crime. They had been charged with the illegal occupation of land and of acting against public officials and were serving there sentences at Prey Sar prison outside Phnom Penh.
Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the rights group Licadho, welcomed the decision but remained critical of their May 24 sentencing in the first place. “I’m disappointed that the municipal court sentenced them unjustly,” she said.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Tuesday’s decision had been made to “save face” for the initial Municipal Court conviction.
“We are delighted that the 13 women will be released and reunited with their families and community,” Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Cambodia researcher, said in a statement. “They should not have been arrested in the first place,” he added, “and their imprisonment has caused unnecessary distress to both them and their families.”
On Tuesday, however, allegations of injustice from the protesters themselves were muted.
“The court in Cambodia really is just,” said Heng Mom, one of the accused, as she left the court. “The Court of Appeals did provide justice, so Khmer society will prosper.”