trapaing thom village, Kampot Province – After the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in 1989, Pheng Thak, 68, and his wife Kim Chheng, 45, were given land title by the government to a salt producing farm that had been managed by Vietnamese producers.
The couple has worked on that farm ever since, but when they tried to sell part of their land in August 2008, they found that a powerful local businessman was claiming ownership.
“If I were not trying to sell this land then I would still not know that it is being claimed by someone else over the ownership,” Mr Thak said on Jan 25, while walking on a two-meter high dike around the disputed land. “I renovated this dike every year. It demarcates my ownership,” he said, pointing toward the circled-shaped dike, used to store water for their 24-hectare salt farm.
In November 2008, Mr Thak learned he was being sued by prominent local businessman Bun Baraing, 41, for allegedly stealing the farmland to sell to another party, Mr Thak said.
“He sued us on the grounds of stealing our own land,” said Ms Chheng, echoing her husband’s claim.
“He is rich and he is trying to use his money to mistreat us,” she alleged.
Early in his investigation, the couple’s attorney Kao Soupha began to find inconsistencies. He quickly stumbled upon two copies of ownership documents, , one with falsified numbers, for a transaction involving the neighbor’s land.
“The city governor was very surprised at that time,” recalled Mr Soupha. “He said the document was duplicated into two. Mr Baraing faked 20 into 29 hectares on another land.”
Veng Dom, Mr Thak’s neighbor, had in October 2005 agreed to sell 20 hectares, not 29 hectares including Mr Thak’s property, to Mr Baraing.
Concerned about being associated with the alleged fraud, Mr Dom in March 2009 lodged a complaint with Kampot provincial court seeking Mr Baraing’s prosecution for allegedly using their contract to grab land Mr Thak’s, according to court documents.
“My wife and I have never owned land containing a salt water reservoir…. We have only a salt farm,” Mr Dom said when contacted by telephone Monday.
“He changed the size in my transferring contract. He faked a twice-copied-contract into two separate documents to claim a different transaction,” he alleged.
“There was only one document of the sales contract has been filed with the commune,” commune chief Nop Sarin said Monday. “Then [Mr Baraing] borrowed it back. He said he needed to change a number that was written wrong.”
Mr Sarin would not discuss the legality of either document, but in a statement sent to Mr Thak’s defense attorney in December, 2009 he noted that “[Mr Baraing] told me that it was repeatedly recorded and he wanted to change it without record at the commune.”
Mr Baraing on Monday denied falsifying documents to grab Mr Thak’s land but admitted that the number of 29 was once changed from 20 because of a handwriting error during the transfer of ownership with Mr Dom in 2005.
“The documents are real but the number has been changed [due to] wrong hand writing,” Mr Baraing said, adding he would be willing to go into prison if they proved fraud occurred.
Mr Baraing maintained he has bought both the salt farm and water reservoir from Mr Dom in 2005, a claim Mr Dom repeatedly denied.
During the hearing on Aug 29, Kampot Provincial Court dismissed Mr Thak’s complaint lodged by Mr Thak against Mr Baraing for falsifying the ownership documents, saying the complainant did not have sufficient evidence to prove his ownership.
The Appeal Court postponed a hearing on the case yesterday because Mr Thak was ill and did not show up. Judge Sin Sivutha said the court would reschedule it.