The Ministry of Justice on Friday announced two key changes to court policy related to land dispute cases as part of the government’s broader efforts to improve its handling of such disputes in the lead-up to the 2018 national election.
At a meeting of the country’s court directors and chief prosecutors at the ministry in Phnom Penh, Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said that Prime Minister Hun Sen had ordered him to ensure that villagers fighting to remain on their land would not be summarily jailed.
“I received the advice from Samdech Prime Minister: In the cases that affect villagers’ livelihoods, please consider more before detaining,” he said.
The two-pronged policy shift calls for provincial court judges to confer with an advisory committee before making decisions about provisional detention in land dispute cases, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said after the meeting.
“We will have working groups to discuss before the judge decides, [using] the Telegram [app] or group chat to talk about the problem with those who have experience with land disputes or experts from the Justice Ministry,” he said, noting that judges would still retain ultimate decision-making authority.
Courts will also be ordered to designate a prosecutor as an official spokesperson in every land dispute case to explain the finer points of law and procedure to the media and the public, Mr. Malin said.
Rights groups and government critics have long contended that the country’s judicial system is rife with corruption and favors the rich and well-connected, leading to the rampant overuse of provisional detention, particularly in land dispute cases that pit villagers against powerful businessmen.
Prime Minister Hun Sen personally intervened in such a case this week, when two community representatives were summarily jailed in Kompong Speu province amid a dispute over some 1,000 hectares of land in Phnom Sruoch district.
The premier wrote on his Facebook page on Monday that he found it “disappointing that the Kompong Speu Provincial Court detained two representatives of the people,” and arranged for two of his sons to travel to the province and negotiate an end to the conflict.
The women were released from prison an hour after Mr. Hun Sen posted the comment.