More than 60 villagers in nine provinces were being detained or had been convicted in relation to land disputes by mid-July this year, according to monitoring data released yesterday by the human rights group Licadho, which said most of the detainees had been behind bars since last year.
Human rights workers said many of these arrests occurred because the courts were quick to lay criminal charges against the villagers for their actions in these disputes, while corruption in the judicial system was also leading the courts to take harsh legal actions against villagers opposing land concessions.
Chheng Sophors, senior investigator for Licadho, said monitoring data from Licadho’s 12 provincial offices over the period from late 2008 until July 15 this year indicated that 43 people had been convicted for their actions during land disputes, mostly last year, while 17 villagers were awaiting trial in detention.
“Most of them were sentenced to between one year and six years” in prison, Mr Sophors said, adding that the courts had most often laid criminal charges, such as damaging property or committing violence, against the villagers.
“They were arrested and charged because they were protesting over a land dispute,” he said, adding that most of these disputes had been between villagers and holders of economic land concessions.
Mr Sophors said the largest number of arrests in land disputes occurred in Siem Reap province, where the provincial court put 20 people behind bars, followed by Kratie province, with 17 arrests, and Banteay Meanchey province, with eight arrests.
Another 15 people were put behind bars because of their role in land disputes in Battambang, Kompong Chhnang, Kampot, Svay Rieng, Kompong Thom provinces and in Phnom Penh, he said.
Nonn Theany, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Land Management and Urban Planning, said she could not comment on individual land disputes as she was unfamiliar with the cases but added that most of the disputes stemmed from unclear boundaries between state and private lands.
Justice Ministry officials declined to comment or were unavailable.
“The government policy is that any area of [villagers’] land affected [by land concessions] it will be removed” from the concession area, she said.
Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said a lack of capacity and corruption in the court system was leading investigating judges to quickly detain villagers on criminal charges without looking at other laws under which to investigate land dispute cases.
“In fact in all of those [alleged] crimes [involving land disputes], sometimes it’s very small. If we look at it’s not a crime,” he said.
“Corruption can encourage this to happen… If they do not choose the law properly, they can be tools for the powerful people,” he said.
Yeng Virak, director of the Community Legal Education Center, said villagers involved in land disputes are often faced with criminal charges, such as damaging property, committing violence or trespassing.
“Very often these are the grounds…for detaining the community representative or villagers in these cases,” he said, explaining that if villagers removed a fence from their land after company workers had placed it there, they could be charged with damaging property.
“There is criminalization of land dispute cases, [but] these should be treated as civil cases,” he said, “The legal system is often used to silence, threaten these people.”
Mr Virak said this was often due to the fact that powerful businessmen were using the legal system to pressure villagers.
“There is a lack of trust in the legal system already. Now the courts are being used more by the rich and powerful,” he said. “It creates more mistrust against the courts and the system.”