Reprisals against Members of the Boeung Kak Community, Cambodia

People look on as a house is demolished at Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh on September 16, 2011. © 2011, Reuters

In 2007, the Municipality of Phnom Penh leased 133 hectares of land in the Boeung Kak Lake areas to Shukaku Inc., a private company owned by ruling Cambodian People’s Party senator Lao Meng Khin, for a period of 99 years. The company planned to develop the land into a high-end residential, commercial, and tourism complex. From that point onwards, the company and the Cambodian government began pressuring residents of the area to relocate, offering deeply inadequate compensation in exchange.

On August 26, 2008, the company started pumping sand into the lake, causing residents’ homes to flood and the destruction of some houses. By this time, the government and company had persuaded or coerced more than 3,000 of the 4,000 affected families from the land, despite many of the affected families having strong legal claims to the land under the Land Law. The municipality then issued a final eviction notice in April 2009. The government along with the company began forcibly evicting the remaining residents.

As discussed below, over the course of the last seven years, Cambodian security forces have threatened and harassed current and former residents of Boeung Kak Lake areas in Phnom Penh for campaigning against their forced evictions. Cambodia’s security forces have aggressively denied the right to peaceful assembly by violently breaking up peaceful protests. The authorities have filed trumped-up charges against protesters or would-be protesters. Those charged have been routinely denied bail, convicted after expedited and truncated trials that did not meet international standards and did not give the accused adequate time to prepare and put forward a defense, and given significant prison sentences.

The World Bank Inspection Panel later investigated and found that there was a direct link between the Bank-financed $23.4 million Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP) in Cambodia, which was approved in February 2002, and the forced evictions suffered by residents in the Boeung Kak Lake area.

Criminalization of Protests and Trumped-Up Charges against Community Members

Since 2009, Cambodian security forces have carried out a string of arrests of Boeung Kak Lake activists. Initially, police typically released the activists after one or two nights in detention. But since the May 2012 arrests of 15 Boeung Kak Lake residents and former residents, police have charged many detainees from the community with criminal offenses. In several cases, courts have convicted them in trials that do not meet Cambodia’s Code of Criminal Procedure or international fair trial standards.

May 2012: Boeung Kak Protestors Arrested, Charged, and Convicted

On May 22, 2012, about 80–100 residents of Boeung Kak Lake peacefully gathered, intending to host a press conference as 18 families sought to mark the boundaries of their now demolished homes. Police arrived almost immediately. Police confiscated the residents’ tools and prevented them from demarcating the boundaries of their houses.

As the hours passed, most of the gathered residents moved into the shade. A small core group remained on the sand lot where the lake used to be, singing songs. At about 11:30 a.m., a mixed force of regular police and district public order para-police surrounded the group and, as the demonstrators dispersed, chased down and arrested 13 women. One protestor described how she was arrested when trying to help a friend, whom security personnel had captured. She said:

They were chasing people like they were trying to catch dogs. Some stepped on my friend’s children.… They pushed me in the car and drove away very fast. I couldn’t get up. I wanted to jump even if I died but then I thought of my grandchildren.

Nget Khun, who was 72-years-old at the time, told Human Rights Watch, “Four or five [security personnel] carried me like they were carrying a pig and then threw me in a car.”

48 hours later, following a summary trial and having denied defense lawyers’ requests for time to prepare their cases or call defense witnesses, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted the 13 women: Nget Khun, Tep Vanny, Kong Chantha, Song Srey Leap, Tho Davy, Chan Navy, Ngoun Kimlang, Bov Sor Phea, Cheng Leap, Soung Samai, Phan Chhunreth, Heng Mom, and Toul Srey Pov.

The women were convicted under articles 34 and 259 of the Land Law for illegal occupancy of public property and article 504 of the Penal Code for obstructing public officials with aggravating circumstances. The court sentenced all 13 women to 30 months in prison, but in the case of six of the women suspended parts of their sentences.

At about 10 a.m. on May 24 — the day of the trial — in front of the Phnom Penh courthouse, security personnel detained human rights defender Venerable Loun Sovath who was protesting together with community members and took him away in a vehicle. He was held at Botum Pagoda in Phnom Penh and released 10 hours later, after being required to sign a document stating that he would no longer continue his advocacy efforts.

Later that day, Sao Sareoun and Ly Chanary, who were going to appear as witnesses in the trial, were also arrested and charged with the same crimes as the 13. They were released from pretrial detention on June 15, still facing the charges, on the condition that they would be available if called by the investigating judge, that they visit their local police station regularly, and that they not move residence.

Members of the Boeung Kak community protest peacefully in Phnom Penh, May 2013. © 2013, Jessica Evans, Human Rights Watch

Following significant domestic and international pressure, the remaining 13 were released on June 27, 2012, when an appeal court upheld the sentences against them, but suspended all but 1 month and 3 days due to the burden that imprisonment imposed on them and their families.

One of the detainees told Human Rights Watch that she experienced extreme fear and depression while in detention. She said that on the day the police tried to transport them to prison, “We refused to go until day break, as we were afraid they would take us and feed us to the crocodiles.” Once in the prison, the detainees were stripped naked and searched. One of the detainees said:

I wanted to commit suicide.… The way the guards at prison talked to me was very horrible like I am not a human being.… An inmate warned me that if I reported anything, I would be dead.

Five of those Boeung Kak Lake community members arrested had been arrested previously for their active opposition to the forced evictions, but none of them had been convicted of any offence. Soung Samai and Toul Srey Pov had both been arrested on two previous occasions. Kong Chantha had been arrested four times previously during peaceful demonstrations and had reported being subject to police observation and regular intimidation. Tep Vanny, one of the most high-profile activists, had also been arrested several times before.

The detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were aware of the World Bank’s involvement through LMAP at this time, but people from the Bank did not visit them in prison. One woman said, “During the time I was in prison, I hoped that the World Bank and others would do something to help me.” Several community members said that as far as they knew, the World Bank did not do anything to support the release of the 13 community members and the two proposed witnesses.

Following their release, several of these women remain concerned about their security. One of the women said, “I worry about my own safety.”

September 2012: Yorm Bopha Arrested and Convicted of Trumped-Up Charges

Yorm Bopha was a major voice in peaceful public protests campaigning for the release of the Boeung Kak 15. She described being regularly threatened, harassed, and intimidated by police as her activism increased, including multiple occasions during which police officers warned her that she was on “the blacklist,” apparently indicating that she was under surveillance and at risk of arrest.

On September 4, 2012, Phnom Penh authorities, in an apparent attempt to deter protests, arrested Bopha for alleged involvement in a conspiracy to assault a man for stealing side mirrors from her car. She was charged along with her husband, Lous Sakhon, and her two brothers. The four were tried by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on December 26 and 27, 2012. Despite insufficient evidence to establish guilt, Bopha was convicted of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” under article 218 of Cambodia’s Penal Code and sentenced to three years in prison, while Sakhon received a suspended prison sentence. Her two brothers were convicted in absentia. Bopha appealed her conviction to the Appeal Court, which upheld the original verdict on June 17, 2013 but reduced Bopha’s sentence from 3 years to 2 years.

When Human Rights Watch interviewed Bopha while she was in jail, she said that since her arrest, no one from the World Bank had visited her or, to the best of her knowledge, enquired about her detention. “I believe they should,” she said. In Bopha’s view:

The World Bank has an obligation and influence to pressure the Cambodian government on human rights. My case is only because of my activism regarding our situation in Boeung Kak, which was linked to the World Bank.… The World Bank should make sure that people’s rights are respected, including the right to speak out when they suffer injustice. The World Bank should at least have someone come and visit me to show their support. It should do what it can to pressure the Cambodian government to release me, as it is because of the World Bank project I ended up in jail.

November 2014: 11 Arrested, Convicted, and Sentenced

On November 10, 2014, Phnom Penh Municipal Police Commissioner Chuon Sovan ordered police and other security forces to intervene against what the authorities deemed an “unauthorized” demonstration outside City Hall by Boeung Kak residents. The protestors had placed a bed frame in Monivong Boulevard to highlight the severe flooding that they were experiencing, which they blamed on the filling in of Boeung Kak Lake by Shukaku, Inc. The security forces scuffled with several protesters engaged in a sit-down that briefly hindered vehicles in one lane of traffic on a boulevard in front of City Hall, although traffic otherwise continued to flow. 
 
 The security forces detained seven women protesters, Tep Vanny, Nget Khun, Song Srey Leap, Kong Chantha, Pan Chunreth, Bo Chorvy, and Nong Sreng, charging them with obstructing traffic under the Land Traffic Law. The next day, November 11, a Phnom Penh court convicted all seven in a summary trial lasting less than three hours. The court sentenced each woman to the maximum penalty of one year in prison and fines of two million riel (approximately US$500) for offenses that would normally attract no more than a small fine or simply a warning. 
 
 On the day of the protesters’ sentencing, security forces broke up an “unauthorized” peaceful assembly in front of the court. The protestors were calling for the release of those arrested the day before. Security forces arrested three women protesters, Heng Pich and Im Srey Touch from Boeung Kak, and Phuong Sopheap, as well as a Buddhist monk, Seung Hai. Each detainee was charged with aggravated “violent resistance against a public official acting in the discharge of his or her duties.” On November 12, all four were given a summary trial in a Phnom Penh court and sentenced to one year in prison.

On April 11, 2015, the ten activists were released from Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison after receiving a royal pardon. Seung Hai also was pardoned and released two days later.

Violence against Protestors

All of the community members interviewed described witnessing security personnel using excessive force to quell the community’s peaceful protests, and several described being injured during protests. This included during protests outside the World Bank office in Phnom Penh. They also described being stopped from protesting in front of the World Bank on several occasions.

Community members described witnessing violence or being kicked and beaten by police officers and subjected to electric shocks. Toul Srey Pov said, “On one occasion a police officer kicked me. I said, ‘Brother, if it makes you happy to kick me, keep doing it but make sure I have my house. If I get my house only if you keep kicking me, then do it.’” 72-year-old Nget Khun told how police hit her in the head with a stick when she attempted to help a pregnant woman whom police were trying to arrest.

On June 27, 2012, when the Boeung Kak 13’s appeal was due to be heard, a large unit of anti-riot intervention police attempted to block community members from reaching the court. Community members say that police officers turned violent as a group of children tried to rush through the road block. According to a statement from several independent groups, during the standoff, one pregnant woman — one of the 13 detainees’ sister — was kicked by a police officer in the stomach and later miscarried due to heavy bleeding. At least four other villagers and seven children were beaten by police and had to receive medical treatments.

On March 13, 2013, protestors who gathered in a public park outside the Prime Minister’s house to petition for Yorm Bopha’s release faced a particularly brutal crackdown by 60–80 gendarmes, anti-riot intervention police, and district para-police forces. Speaking of that day, a community member who was present at the time said, “Police beat people like they were animals.” Bopha’s husband, Lous Sakhon, bore the brunt of the attack, losing his front teeth and suffering several lacerations. He described being attacked by police:

I heard the chief of public park police order, “Arrest that man and beat him for me. If anything happens, I’ll be responsible.” I tried to run away.… More than ten police jumped on me … I felt someone grab me by the neck and then I felt punches and kicks all over me and felt them carrying me. Then I felt extreme pain in my leg.… They kicked me.… That is how they broke my teeth.

On May 29, 2013, authorities used high-pressure water from their hoses to disperse peaceful protesters, causing them, and those that attempted to rescue them, to fall down.

Security personnel also used violence in the course of several of the forced evictions. For example, on September 17, 2011, excavators, protected by approximately one hundred anti-riot police officers and district public order para-police, destroyed eight homes. Police officers allegedly kicked and beat protest leader Suong Sophorn with bricks and batons after he reportedly encouraged residents to join hands to prevent the demolitions.

Threats, Intimidation, and Surveillance in Communities

Several community members described to Human Rights Watch local police officers surveilling their day-to-day activities. One of them said, “I feel I’m not safe these days, as I feel my every move is watched.” When one community member asked the police officer in civilian clothing that was routinely following her what he was doing, she said he answered, “Mother, I’m just doing as I’m ordered.”

Numerous people detailed being threatened by members of the security forces and company officials. Tep Vanny told of one day in 2012 when she was approached by an unknown man wearing the uniform of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit. He told her, “I visit your children nearly every day at your mother’s house. I play with them. Don’t you feel sorry for them?” Vanny said, “I knew that was a threat.”

Some people also spoke of facing verbal and gender-based harassment. Bo Chorvy described the local authorities criticizing her appearance and bullying her about her divorce. According to Chorvy, employees of the local authority tried to “break the bond between members of the community” and succeeded in several instances. Another community member said that some of her neighbors, who did not participate in the protests, alienated and bullied her. She said, “Some of [them] spit on the ground … when I’m around.”

In addition to facing harassment, some community members said that they had been offered enticements should they agree to cease participating in public demonstrations. One community member said, “A municipal official called me and offered me $1,500 to fix my broken roof if I stopped acting as a land activist and helping the community protest. I rejected the offer.”

Others were threatened by their employers that they would be fired from their job for protesting. Family members of two activists who hold government positions suffered reprisals because of their family member’s activism or their own support for that activism. One was suspended, while the other lost benefits that drastically reduced his salary. One of these activists described her ordeal:

The local government used to contact [my family member] and ask him to be internal spy and be paid $500 per month.… They told him … to tell [me] to stop protesting. They threatened to fire him from his job if he kept protesting.… I decided to stop protesting so he could go back to work and we could afford our children’s education.… Since I stopped protesting, all the threats and pressure has gone.

The World Bank and Inspection Panel’s Responses

Community members have met with World Bank officials on several occasions since 2009, and continue to do so. The World Bank responded strongly to the forced evictions in Boeung Kak. In August 2011, the World Bank announced it had frozen all new funding to the Cambodian government until a solution could be found for the affected families.

A week after this announcement, the Prime Minister granted 12.44 hectares of the area to the remaining 779 families. The Municipality, however, arbitrarily excluded 96 families who could have benefitted from the grant while giving some of the land to the company instead of the families. Meanwhile, the company and security forces continued to harass residents and destroy homes. For instance, on September 16, 2011, company workers and armed forces demolished eight families’ homes without notice. The government has since granted titles to almost all the families that were initially excluded. The World Bank is seen by the community as being the reason why titles were properly granted to most of the excluded houses. At this writing, insufficient steps have been taken to appropriately compensate the families that were forced to relocate, and on May 7, 2015, government para-police again clashed violently with some community members who were protesting to demand better compensation.

While the World Bank has responded strongly against the government’s forcible eviction of Boeung Kak Lake residents, it has been largely silent about the reprisals against community members. Community members say World Bank staff told them that they could not do anything publicly to assist those who were imprisoned or even appeal directly to the government. According to community members, World Bank staff said that they would try to encourage the UN Human Rights Office to “get involved.” In addition, according to Tep Vanny, some staff at the World Bank encouraged them not to be in contact with nongovernmental organizations because criticizing the World Bank and government was “their job.”

World Bank country manager, Alassane Sow, told Human Rights Watch that while he has met with Boeung Kak activists on several occasions, he has never told them he will reach out to the UN human rights office on their behalf. He said that the focus of his conversations with the Boeung Kak activists has been on the status of provision of land titles. He emphasized, “We have systematically encouraged the activists to reach out to local authorities to discuss [the] status of provision of titles.” He does not recall the activists specifically raising arrests, threats, surveillance, and harassment with him. He said that the World Bank portfolio of projects in Cambodia is very small now, something “he is not proud of given the World Bank mandate to fight poverty; thus, the issue of reprisals [against] people in relation to Bank projects is moot.”

When asked by Human Rights Watch whether the Inspection Panel enquired about security risks facing community members following their visit, the Panel responded:

The Panel continued to keep in touch with the Requesters’ representative and Bank Management about the situation on the ground. Although we were aware of the difficulties some of the community members were facing, we were not made aware of particular incidents that may have happened as a result of the request/investigation.

As the Panel was on notice of the general security risks facing the communities, Human Rights Watch believes that the Panel could have been more proactive in monitoring the security situation following its investigation, including by conducting a follow up visit to Cambodia.

Several community members described receiving very little support from World Bank officials after requesting their support for community members that were imprisoned. One community member, Ngat Sophat said, “I’ve not known the World Bank to do anything to make us safe.”

Back in 2002 after a brutal government crackdown on a protest in Cambodia, a World Bank official condemned the crackdown, calling it “unacceptable … You can’t talk about participation and consultation on one hand and beat people who express their opinions on the other.” Despite similarly brutal crackdowns in recent years, the World Bank has remained silent.

Published in Human Rights Watch report, At Your Own Risk, June 2015.

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