Thirteen villagers arrested during a violent melee with police over disputed land in Sihanoukville on Friday were charged by the municipal court Sunday with intentionally causing bodily harm and destruction of police and military police property, authorities and rights workers said.
All 13—whose ages range from 16 to 56—are being held in pretrial detention at Sihanoukville Municipal Prison, said Nheth Poan, deputy bureau chief of the Sihanoukville minor crime office.
The 13 were arrested when violence broke out as dozens of villagers resisted an attempt by 150 armed police and soldiers to remove them from disputed land in Mittapheap district. Ultimately, the villagers were driven from the land and their homes were leveled by the authorities or burned to the ground. Villagers claim police started the blaze, but police have denied any involvement.
Nheth Poan said that the destruction of property charge was leveled against the villagers because nine riot police shields, nine electric batons and two walkie-talkies were destroyed in Friday’s confrontation.
Nheth Poan added that all 13 had confessed to being ordered by a few “ringleaders” to violently confront the police.
Sihanoukville Municipal Court Prosecutor Meas Sopheak declined to comment on the case, referring all questions to Deputy Court Director Sok Soeun, who could not be reached for comment. Municipal Governor Say Hak did not answer repeated calls Monday.
Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said that the charge of intentionally causing bodily harm could result in sentences of up to five years—double that if a weapon was used—and the destruction of property charge could bring an additional three years in prison.
Chan Soveth, chief monitor for rights group Adhoc, said by telephone from Sihanoukville that the jailed villagers have claimed that police beat them following their arrest.
“We witnessed that they are injured, so health officials from Licadho provided them some drugs for treating injuries,” he said.
Yin Bunnath, municipal deputy police chief, denied that police had beaten any of the arrested men.
“Only one jailed man is injured because during the confrontation our police just tried to fight back to protect themselves,” he said. “They were not beaten after being arrested—not even one.”
(Additional reporting by John Maloy)