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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cambodia jails 13 women land activists: Rights groups

PHNOM PENH - Thirteen Cambodian women were jailed Thursday for fighting against a forced eviction, while an activist monk who supported them was detained and risks being defrocked, campaigners said.

The women, including a 72-year-old, were sentenced to between 12 and 30 months for illegally occupying land, rights groups said, slamming their hastily arranged trial in the capital Phnom Penh that lasted mere hours.

 Land conflicts are Cambodia’s most pressing human rights issue and protests have intensified this year amid what rights groups say is a worsening crackdown on human rights activists.

 The women were arrested on Tuesday when they tried to symbolically rebuild the homes of several families who were evicted to make way for a private development at a lakeside area in the capital.

 “This was nothing short of a show trial – a complete charade,” said Sia Phearum, Secretariat Director of Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF), in a statement.

 “The women were peacefully demonstrating... They were seeking an end to the ongoing dispute surrounding Boeung Kak lake.”

 Cambodia’s most outspoken monk Loun Sovath was among dozens of supporters waiting outside the court during the women’s trial, when he was suddenly forced into a car and taken to meet the city’s chief monk, without any explanation.

The award-winning human rights activist – known as the multimedia monk for his work documenting land disputes – was still being detained at a pagoda in the capital late Thursday, with observers fearing he faces being disrobed for his activities.

 Chief monk Non Ngeth could not immediately be reached for comment. In the past, he has told AFP he opposed Sovath’s advocacy work because monks should not get involved in politics.

Rights groups posted a video online (http: youtu.be/0sG6iLwj95o) showing Sovath being forcibly taken away from the court by a handful of monks and plainclothes police.

 Land titles are a murky issue in Cambodia where land ownership was abolished during the 1975-1979 rule of the communist Khmer Rouge and many legal documents were lost.

Last week, a 14-year-old girl was shot dead when armed government forces clashed with protesters involved in a long-running territorial battle with a private company.

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