“You can’t imagine how much it means to me to have so many visitors from international organisations. Now I know that neither I, nor the demands of my fellow activists who are outside prison, are forgotten”
These were some of the first words that a tearful Yorm Bopha, a 29-year-old imprisoned lands rights activist in Cambodia told ten visitors from international, regional and local organisations, when we visited her at the Phnom Penh Police Judiciare prison on Friday morning. Yorm Bopha came out to meet us wearing the blue prison uniform of trousers and jacket. She told us she doesn’t have to wear this in her communal cell – a 5x5m2 room housing eight women prisoners, where they sleep on thin mats on a concrete floor.
At the prison gates, we had to leave behind all cameras, phones and notebooks. The visit, around a long table with trestle benches set under gently whirring fans, was arranged in the wake of a four-day conference in Phnom Penh of the IFEX network – an 90–strong global network of organisations defending the right to freedom of expression of which PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee is a founder member. We handed her a purple IFEX t-shirt which she said she would be able to wear in her cell.
During the conference, there were several actions highlighting the injustices in the case of Yorm Bopha – she is serving a three-year prison sentence, one year of which was suspended on appeal, after a conviction of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances”. We believe these charges were trumped up and politically motivated, in order to stop her activities on behalf of the Boeng Kak lake community. The residents are facing forced eviction as the lake around which they live is being filled in with sand to make way for yet more development in Phnom Penh’s rapidly changing landscape. Yorm Bopha came to prominence for her campaigning for the release of 13 fellow activists who were imprisoned in 2012 and received threats as a result. PEN International is joining calls for her immediate and unconditional release.
But Bopha’s activism has not been halted by her incarceration. She has been organising and defending her own and her fellow prisoners’ rights while behind bars. She has been writing protest lyrics to popular tunes which she passes to her husband during his visits which take place 2-3 times a week (her young son only visits at the weekend). The songs are then sung by the other activists at their on-going protests. She is requesting that women prisoners are granted access to English language lessons – male prisoners are being taught but so far women have been excluded. She has also insisted on being allowed to receive food brought by family and friends, which the prison authorities had tried to prevent, requiring prisoners to buy food from the prison canteen. We were glad to deliver several boxes of fruit and nuts to her.
Yorm Bopha is also chronicling her daily experiences in a prison diary, which she hopes to publish on her release. Judging by the energy emanating from her nine months after her arrest, it will be an inspiring read. But I hope that it will not be too long a book – she has appealed to the Supreme Court against her conviction and sentence. It would be a good day for Cambodia if the court ordered her release.
Writers in Prison Committee