PHNOM PENH— Cambodia’s Supreme Court ordered the release of a land rights activist on Friday who has spent more than a year in jail on what rights groups claim are trumped-up charges. However, despite the release, the ruling from the five-judge bench disappointed many by sending the case back to a lower court for further investigation.
Yorm Bopha, a 30-year old mother of one, is a prominent member of a group of residents of an area in the capital known as Boeung Kak lake, where in recent years thousands of families have been evicted as part of an opaque land deal.
Her case has garnered attention at home and abroad, especially after rights group Amnesty International named her a prisoner of conscience, and called on its members to take action. Thousands wrote or emailed on her behalf.
On Friday, hopes were high among hundreds of Yorm Bopha’s assembled supporters, including many Buddhist monks, that the judiciary would free her unconditionally.
Yorm Bopha was confident as well. Speaking during a recess before the Supreme Court handed down its decision, she thanked people inside and outside Cambodia for their efforts.
Bopha said she was grateful for everyone's support, and was hopeful the court would "deliver justice" for her.
In the event, the Supreme Court ordered her released on bail, and instructed a lower court to revisit her case. It was much less than she and her supporters had hoped for.
Minutes later, Yorm Bopha told the media of her disappointment.
Bopha said she felt despondent that the case is being returned to the Appeal Court. She said this is being done to "shackle" her, and shows that authorities do not want her to file another complaint.
A municipal court sentenced Yorm Bopha to three years in jail last December for her alleged involvement in an attack on two men. Earlier this year, the Appeal Court reduced that term to two years. On Friday, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Appeal Court and instructed it to examine all of the evidence.
Rights groups say the problem is that no evidence has ever been presented indicating that Yorm Bopha was involved in the case.
Outside the court, Amnesty International’s Cambodia researcher, Rupert Abbott, said the verdict has generated mixed feelings.
“Of course we’re pleased that she’s released - I think it shows that activism works. Her community’s been very active, day in, day out, and they’ve had some support from others, including Amnesty International members. We’re really pleased that she’s released. But we’re disappointed because the saga’s still continuing. The case has been sent back to the Appeal Court. She’s only released effectively on bail so it’s hanging over her. It’s another attempt to stop her activism and to silence her. So we’re concerned about that,” said Abbott.
Abbott said that he hoped the lower court - when it eventually looks into the case - would accept that there is no evidence against her.
“Let’s hope that her release today is a positive sign. Let’s hope that it symbolizes a change in attitude from the authorities - the government’s promised reforms here. Let’s hope her release today shows that this trend - harassing, threatening, attacking, imprisoning human rights defenders - let’s hope it’s coming to an end,” continued Abbott.
After the hearing on Friday, dozens of Yorm Bopha’s supporters followed her back to the prison to await her release, which will take place once officials have processed the necessary paperwork. She is expected to leave jail Friday.