Cambodia land activists' convictions called unjust

Human rights groups in Cambodia expressed outrage Friday over prison sentences imposed on 13 women who were protesting being evicted from their land without adequate compensation.

The women were sentenced Thursday by a Phnom Penh court after being found guilty of aggravated rebellion and illegal occupation of land in a three-hour trial.

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.

This month, a visiting U.N. human rights envoy warned that the issue was a volatile social problem, and a teenage girl was shot dead by security forces carrying out an eviction.

"Sentencing to jail 13 people who have been victimized by land grabbing is a complete injustice," said Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. "There was no fair trial."

Those sentenced, who included a 72-year-old woman, had been residents of 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.

They were arrested Tuesday when they tried to rebuild their homes on the land where their old houses were demolished by the developers in 2010.

The group has protested several times in the last few years to demand land titles they said had been promised by Prime Minister Hun Sen's government. They claimed that the city government resettled some families, but did not include them.

Ou Virak said the issue of the rich and powerful grabbing land from the poor — who then are arrested if they resist or complain — was becoming more serious.

Pung Chhic Kek, president of the local human rights group Licadho, said the case against the women was groundless and described the legal proceedings as "a show trial and ridiculous."

She said that lawyers from her organization were barred from talking with the defendants and introducing witnesses.