Court frees 13 Cambodian land eviction protesters

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By SOPHENG CHEANG, Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — An appeals court Wednesday ordered the release of 13 women who were jailed for protesting being evicted from their homes without adequate compensation, in a case that had critics had highlighted as an example of injustice.

The women cheered in the courtroom, their supporters applauded and observers from foreign embassies, including the United States, smiled in the audience after the judge's ruling.

"Finally, justice has been done for us," defendant Heng Mom said tearfully, before being driven away again in a prison van. "From now on I can see my children and live with them."

Judge Seng Sivutha upheld last month's convictions of the women for aggravated rebellion and illegal occupation of land, for which each had been sentenced to 2½ years in prison. They had been arrested when they tried to rebuild their homes on land where their old houses had been demolished by developers in 2010.

The judge reduced their sentences to time served of one month and three days and freed them because he said they have children at home to take care of and had little knowledge of the law. They were to be freed Wednesday evening after being processed out of prison.

The women had lived in Phnom Penh's Boueng Kak lake area, which the government awarded to a Chinese company for commercial development, including a hotel, office buildings and luxury housing. Residents complained they were not given new land titles they were promised by the government.

Their trial came amid heightened concern in Cambodia about land grabbing, which is sometimes linked to corruption and the use of deadly force to carry out evictions.

The human rights group Amnesty International this week had called on the court to reverse the convictions, which it said had been imposed after a "grossly unfair trial."

"The trial occurred just one hour after the women were charged," said Amnesty's statement. "Their lawyers were not given time to prepare a defense, nor were they given access to evidence or witnesses." It called the women "prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for speaking out on behalf of their community and for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression."

The Boueng Kak evictees had been doggedly protesting for several years, despite facing a government that has little tolerance for dissent.

The protests continued on the morning of the trial, with supporters — the women's relatives and human rights activists — trying to gather near the court.

Some 200 supporters tried to gather about 100 meters (yards) away, but about 300 police and military police were deployed to block them. At one point the two sides clashed when the authorities tried to push the crowd back.

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