More than four years after a complaint was filed, Ratanakkiri Provincial Court has yet to complete an investigation of a 450-hectare land dispute between 50 ethnic Jarai families in O’Yadaw district and Keat Kolney, the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon.
The case, which pits powerful local interests against some of the poorest members of Cambodian society, appears simply to have proved too hot to handle for judge after judge.
Judge Lou Sou Sambath, president of the provincial court, said yesterday that on April 27 he had appointed Judge Ek Polyphill to the case but that he had refused, making him the fourth judge to back away from the long-running dispute.
“Such denial is making me upset, because I am the president of the court just performing my legal duties in assigning judges to work on the case,” Judge Sou Sambath said. “The neglect is rendering my order useless.”
He said he believed Judge Polyphill refused to accept the case out of fear.
“I think he is scared to work on this case,” Judge Sou Sambath said.
“Three previous judges alleged that the villagers embroiled in the dispute tried to attack them, making other judges afraid to work on it.”
Judge Polyphill defended his refusal, saying that Judge Sou Sambath had not followed procedure. Judge Sou Sambath should have nominated him to take the case and submitted this for approval to a panel of judges, according to Judge Polyphill.
Judge Sou Sambath “didn’t follow procedure, he just verbally appoints judges to work on the case without issuing any formal order,” Judge Polyphill said.
This is not the first time that a provincial judge has refused to take up the case.
Before Judge Polyphill, judges An Samnang, Ya Narin, currently an appellate judge at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and Thor Saran had been appointed to the case. Judge Samnang and Judge Narin have since been transferred. Judge Saran, the last to be appointed, quit the case in May last year following complaints from villagers that he was not actively investigating.
The case that is now judgeless began in January 2007, when the Jarai families filed a complaint with the court, accusing Ms Kolney of “forging land sale documents to grab 450 hectares” of ancestral farmland, of which 250 hectares have been planted with rubber trees.
Representatives of Ms Kolney have said the sale was fair and valid, even though communally owned land
Judge Polyphill said that he just wants the court to implement the correct procedure and that if the council decided he should take up the case, he “would not be scared.”
Sev Thvel, a representative for the Jarai families, said the court’s sluggish approach and in particular the internal disagreement between Judge Polyphill and Judge Sou Sambath was just another tactic to discourage villagers and “abandon the court battle.”
“It doesn’t matter if we lose or win. We want to see the court make a final judgment as to who the legal landowners are,” Mr Thvel said.
One of the villagers’ lawyers, Yin Savath of the Community Legal Education Center, said the legal team was unsatisfied with the court’s handling of the matter after meeting with Judge Sou Sambath and Judge Polyphill last month.
“The judge’s refusal as well as the court president’s ignorance to take tough measures in appointing a new judge to work on my clients’ case is damaging my clients’ interests,” Mr Savath said.
Judge Sou Sambath said Ms Kolney had not appointed a new lawyer to represent her and that he had never held up the case.
“I always comply with procedure, not holding the case illegally,” he said.