Former stalwarts fought for years after leader’s murder
Chea Kim, a widow of the government’s 1997 cataclysm, suffered defeat yesterday as the Supreme Court awarded her late husband’s Kandal province land to 33 families claiming to have bought it since his assassination.
An echo of the partisan violence and mayhem of the late 1990s, the end of the 10-year legal battle put to rest long-unsettled claims that had shifted along with the loyalties of former Funcinpec members after their party was routed by CPP forces.
Once chief of security for Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Ms Kim’s husband, Ho Sok, 45, a powerful Funcinpec secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, was shot dead on the ground floor of the ministry on July 7, 1997, one of the perhaps more than 100 extrajudicial killings that had principally beset Funcinpec in the days after the Phnom Penh street battles.
About a month after the murder, Ms Kim, now 54, fled to the US as a refugee, leaving the land he had purchased unprotected.
The sale of the land to its current owners was found in 2006 to be illegal and was the subject of the criminal convictions of a deputy provincial governor and an official at the Interior Ministry, verdicts that were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007.
But the top court ruled yesterday that Ms Kim had nevertheless abandoned the 13.3 hectares—situated less than a kilometer from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Kandal estate—and so forfeited any legal claim to them.
The land’s current owners, several of them former Funcinpec members that have since switched allegiances to the ruling CPP, include prominent members of society and current and former government officials, such as Ieng Mouly, former minister of information, Tep Darong, president of the Royal Academy for the Judicial Professions, and former Sa’ang district governor Prum Samuth.
A visit to the site in March revealed that the land is now subdivided into large plots, some containing orchards, surrounded by tall concrete walls.
“During oral arguments, Chea Kim was said to have given money to her husband Ho Sok to buy the land, but then she departed to live in the United States and failed to manage the property until in 2010 she lodged a complaint demanding ownership,” said Judge Kong Srim, speaking for a bench of five other judges.
“It is noted that Ms Chea Kim abandoned her ownership rights for more than 14 years. Therefore, she no longer has the right to demand to possess this land,” Judge Srim said. He recalled that, by law, abandoned land becomes escheat after three years but said the state had not attempted to take possession of the property.
“That’s why the rights to this land fall into the hands of the 33 families,” he said.
Reacting to the ruling, Chea Se, Ms Kim’s brother and an undersecretary of state at the Social Affairs Ministry, lamented it as unjust.
“The decision handed down this morning by Judge Kong Srim and Judge Prak Kimsan has disappointed me very much,” Mr Se said outside the courthouse. “I have heard of a lot of land grabbing in the country and now it has befallen my family.”
Judges Srim and Kimsan are also presidents of the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s appeals and pretrial chambers, respectively.
Representatives of the current owners were unavailable.
For $63,700, Ho Sok had on Sept 12, 1995, purchased the land—wetlands located along Road 21 in Sa’ang district’s Svay Ralum commune—planning to develop residences for his family and for nearly 250 families of other Funcinpec loyalists.
According to official records and interviews, the land became the subject of arrangements among Funcinpec members, some of whose alliances later proved to be illusory at best.
Unable to secure access to the land two years after Ho Sok’s assassination, the families in 1999 asked the Interior Ministry to intervene. The following year, the ministry instructed Tep Nonnary, then the Funcinpec provincial governor, to safeguard the property.
In 2001, Mr Nonnary ordered Mr Samuth, who is now one of the owners vindicated yesterday by the Supreme Court, to protect it for the 242 families, including Ms Kim’s.
However, beginning in 1999, parcels of the land had been sold by Prak Savuth, then a Funcinpec deputy provincial governor who was convicted in 2006 along with Khlork Pros, Ho Sok’s former assistant at the Interior Ministry, of stealing and selling the land. The convictions were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007.
Though Mr Pros received a sentence of three years and Mr Savuth was sentenced to six months in jail, neither was ever detained.
In February, Funcinpec asked Judge Dith Munty, president of the Supreme Court, to award the land to Ms Kim.
“To end the legal case with overwhelming documents, such as a confession from Prak Savuth, the Funcinpec party would like to ask His Excellency, president of the Supreme Court, to issue a ruling placing the 133,000 square meters…under the control of Ms Chea Kim,” Nhiek Bun Chhay, since named Funcinpec executive president, wrote in a letter.
In September, Prince Ranariddh wrote to Mr Hun Sen, saying Mr Savuth had illegally applied for the land titles and that the property should be returned to Ms Kim.
Un Pov, deputy chief of Tuol Krasaing Leu village, who processed the original sale, said the land had not legitimately been purchased after it was originally bought by Ho Sok in 1995.
“I never gave my thumbprint for another sale of this land,” he said in March.
Uk Vandeth, a lawyer for Mr Savuth, who is now a member of the Kratie provincial council, declined to comment yesterday.
In an April 4 interview at Phnom Penh International Airport where she was departing for the US, Ms Kim recalled escaping to Thailand after her husband’s murder and obtaining refugee status from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Before my departure, I told my brother to look after the land as I was so frightened to return home,” she said. “Then my land was grabbed, but they forgot that the original title was with me.”
“Now I want the land back, and I hope the court and the truth will grant me justice.”