Thirteen villagers arrested in November for their part in the alleged grab of 125 hectares of land in Sihanoukville’s Mittapheap district have been released, court officials said Thursday.
Police had initially detained a total of 39 villagers—out of some 42 who were charged with land grabbing—on Nov 12 after they were accused of inciting villagers to violently take the land, Sihanoukville’s Governor Say Hak said on Thursday. Over the past month, about 20 of them had been freed, he said.
“We are still considering how many villagers will be freed of charges and released from jail,” Say Hak said, adding that he estimated that six villagers still remain behind bars.
“Only real ringleaders will be punished,” he said. “Other villagers who were not strongly involved in the land grab will be released.”
Say Hak said police will continue arresting ring leaders, even though local police said they have not been authorized to act on outstanding warrants.
Following the first wave of arrests, 72 villagers fled to Phnom Penh on Nov 20 and sought shelter in a city pagoda.
They were given food and rice by local human rights group Licadho but left the pagoda about 10 days later.
Kek Galabru, founder of Licadho, welcomed the release of the 13 but expressed concern for those still in jail. Kek Galabru visited the arrested villagers in mid-December and sought their release by local authorities on the grounds they were not the instigators of the land dispute.
Villagers at the site of the disputed territory said in November that they belonged to poor, landless families who had cleared and settled peacefully on the vacant land, some as long as four years ago.
Denying they had illegally obtained the land, the villagers claimed powerful people were trying to stake a claim to their properties owing to the growing price of land in the coastal town.