Last month’s release of 13 women jailed for protesting a housing development in Phnom Penh was good news for the women incarcerated, but by upholding the lower court’s judgement, the Appeal Court set a bad precedent, observers say.
The Appeals Court did not overturn a guilty verdict hastily handed the women by Phnom Penh Municipal Court, but released them with time served, after they were arrested for constructing a house on the Boeung Kak site of a forced eviction in May.
Analyst Lao Monghay told “Hello VOA” Thursday the Phnom Penh court’s decision had little basis in law. The Appeals Court decision to uphold the judgement—though reduce the sentence—was “a bad example of the Cambodian court, which did not try them based on legal procedures,” he said.
The court “did not find clear evidence, had no witnesses, and so on,” he said. “And the Appeals Court upheld the Phnom Penh court as making the right judgement. Then others will do the same, meaning that in the future they will not need to investigate a great deal but immediately try them when police arrest them and imprison them.”
That will cause worry among the populace, he said, that they can be immediately imprisoned after their arrest. “This is a bad sign for people in general.”
Even though the women are now free, he said, they are still convicted of a crime. “Releasing them I don’t think was justice for them all, but it was compassion,” he said.
The women were arrested as they tried to reconstruct a house at the Boeung Kak development site following a forced eviction and destruction of their homes. They were charged with illegally occupying land and defying local authorities.
Am Sam Ath, head investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said the charges against them did not fit the act. “What we regret is that although the Appeals Court decided to let the 13 people out of prison, it still upheld the verdict of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court,” he said. “It’s not justice for 13 people who did not commit anything like the charges.”
Instead, he said, the Appeals Court decision underscored the need for reform in the Cambodian judiciary.
“If the court system is not independent, impunity and the influence of politicians on the court will continue,” he said. “So NGOs have urged the government to speed up reform, especially judicial reform, and make the court independent.”