Welcoming Yorm Bopha in the rain

Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Cambodia, describes prisoner of conscience Yorm Bopha’s recent release on bail, passes on her message of thanks to Amnesty’s members and says now is the time to keep up the pressure on the authorities to drop the charges against her.

When I arrived at Cambodia’s Supreme Court on the morning of 22 November 2013, hundreds of people were already gathered outside. Like me, they had come to support housing rights activist and prisoner of conscience Yorm Bopha, due to appear before a panel of five judges who would hear her appeal.

Yorm Bopha is a 30-year-old mother of one and a passionate advocate for her community at the former Boeung Kak Lake area in Phnom Penh, where thousands of people have been forcibly evicted since 2007.

Drums and singingThe court hearing started late. The sound of drums and singing by Bopha’s supporters outside – at times numbering around 400 people, including monks, community members and other activists – could be clearly heard in the court room, which was filled with observers from local NGOs, the diplomatic community, the UN and media.

The hearing lasted about two hours before the judges left to consider the verdict. After around 30 minutes they returned and announced their decision: the case would be sent back to the Appeal Court for re-trial and Yorm Bopha would be released on bail.

Bopha herself was disappointed at the judges’ decision – for her the only fair outcome would be acquittal.

She had been arrested in September 2012 and sentenced the following December to three years’ imprisonment and a heavy fine. She was accused of planning an assault on two men, and convicted of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” despite no evidence against her and inconsistent witness testimonies.

Amnesty International and others considered that the charges against her were false and that she had been targeted because of her activism. Yet despite the lack of evidence, in June 2013 Cambodia’s Appeal Court upheld her conviction with one year of her three-year sentence suspended. The Supreme Court hearing was her last chance for justice.

Celebrating with family and friendsOutside the court, I gave Amnesty International’s view of the decision to journalists from local and international media: happy that Yorm Bopha was to be freed, but disappointed that her release was not unconditional and the case was not over.

She was then taken back to the Prison Judiciaire where she had been imprisoned.  Around 100 of her community supporters followed in tuk-tuks to wait for the paperwork to be completed and to welcome her outside the prison. They waited in the rain until around 5.45 pm, when Bopha emerged from the prison, reunited with her young son and family.

She told waiting journalists that she was disappointed that the charges against her had not been dropped, and then left with her supporters for a celebration in the torrential rain at Boeung Kak.

Yorm Bopha restarted her human rights activism straight away. Only the following day, on 23 November, she joined activists in assisting another community who the authorities were trying to forcibly move from an abandoned building.  She has participated in further protests since, and is joining a series of marches ahead of International Human Rights Day on 10 December.

A message of thanksWhen I met Bopha briefly again on 26 November, she asked me to pass on this message: “Thank you to Amnesty International’s supporters: your campaign has been successful, as my release shows! But my case is not over yet. Please keep pushing the Cambodian government to end the case against me. And please keep supporting me, my community and others in Cambodia. We can achieve the most success when we all work together!”

It appears that the Boeung Kak community’s relentless campaigning, day in, day out, resulted in Yorm Bopha’s release, albeit temporary.  The Cambodian authorities were compelled to listen, especially when international activists including Amnesty International’s members, joined in the call for justice.

Now, the aim is for Yorm Bopha to be acquitted – for all charges against her to be dropped, and her release to be unconditional after the Appeal Court holds a new trial (with no date yet given, this could be months away). Only this will end the uncertainty and worry that Bopha may be returned to prison again.

Many thanks for your actions so far – they have definitely made a difference. Now is the time to keep up the pressure − please tell the Cambodian authorities to drop all the charges against Yorm Bopha and make her freedom unconditional!

Yorm Bopha is one of 12 people and communities featured in Amnesty International’s flagship annual campaign, Write for Rights, the world’s biggest human rights event. This year it runs until 17 December, and is expected to garner more than two million individual actions worldwide.