Two prominent Boeung Kak lake activists were charged with incitement on Wednesday and sent to the capital’s notorious Prey Sar prison after the municipal court opted to forgo usual legal procedure and move directly to trial.
A Spanish national who had joined a protest led by the Boeung Kak activists the previous day was also detained and deported from the country.
The two activists, Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea, were charged with “provocation to commit crimes” for taking part in a demonstration as part of the civil society-backed Black Monday campaign, which began in May.
The demonstration saw the activists putting curses on four headless mannequins symbolizing issues such as corruption in the courts.
The Black Monday campaign was launched earlier this year to call for the release of four staff members of the local human rights group Adhoc and a senior election official, who were jailed on connection to the ongoing investigation of a sex scandal that has enveloped the opposition’s deputy leader, Kem Sokha.
Since 2007, thousands of people have been evicted from Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake area to make way for a huge development project operated by tycoon and ruling party Senator Lao Meng Khin’s Shukaku company.
More than 20 people gathered outside the court on Wednesday to protest their trial.
Hout Chansovann, 46, Vanny’s elder sister, said outside the court that the two activists had not broken the law and were only seeking to advocate for justice for the detained rights workers and election official, and for an independent investigation into the murder of prominent political analyst and government critic Kem Ley on July 10.
“I appeal to all communities and organizations, both local and overseas, to help them, because we are innocent people protesting for justice. Their arrests are so unfair,” she said.
Officials have repeatedly expressed fears that the campaign could be an attempt to incite the overthrow of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration.
Speaking to VOA before her arrest, Vanny said the campaign was only aimed at using their “freedom in the name of citizens who cannot accept rights abuses or oppression from today’s government.”
“We do not violate any constitutional, state or international laws,” she added.
Four other Cambodian Black Monday activists were arrested in separate incidents on Monday, however, they were released later that day.
Spanish national Marga Bujosa Segado was also arrested while observing the demonstration and reportedly deported by the authorities.
Sok Eysan, a ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman, said the arrests were “a good thing” because they could prevent further unrest.
“Before a big fire occurs, there are always little sparks,” he said.
“Better that this was prevented now than when it becomes on a big scale, because that can cost hundreds of lives.”
Court spokesman Ly Sophanna could not be reached for comment.
Bo Chhorvy, 40, a Boeung Kak resident, said the case against the two activists was an attempt to “smear” them.
“As you know, for seven years we have been beaten and taken to court one after the other,” she said. “There’s no justice for us.”
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at Licadho, a local rights group, said he thought the decision to jail the activists was intended to provoke a reaction from the community, which could then be used as a justification for further action by the authorities.
He added that the human rights situation in Cambodia had plummeted to a “critical point” since the murder of Kem Ley.