Eight villagers embroiled in a land dispute in Battambang province’s Bavel district were charged with robbery and detained by the provincial court on Monday, the provincial chief prosecutor said.
The villagers, who belong to a group of 112 families harvesting rice they claim they planted on 180 hectares of disputed property, will remain in detention for up to six months pending the court’s investigation, Prosecutor Yam Yeth said. “I charged them with robbery because they harvested someone’s rice,” he said.
The eight villagers were arrested by provincial police Sunday after 23 others in their group managed to escape from police custody earlier the same day.
A village representative and local rights group Adhoc reported Sunday that the arrested villagers had been tied and held by police at gunpoint. Police have declined comment on whether they used force.
The villagers had been harvesting rice planted on the land in March. According to the 112 families, that land was among 360 hectares grabbed from them by ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers who defected to the government in 1997, and then sold to 46 other families. “The rice field belongs to us, so why do the police arrest us?” Chhoeurn Ny, a representative for the 112 families, asked Monday.
Chhoeurn Ny and four other villagers traveled to Phnom Penh Monday to seek help from human rights groups for the release of the eight jailed villagers.
Adhoc spokesman Chan Soveth on Monday defended the jailed villagers, saying police had wrongfully arrested them since the land dispute has not been brought to court. “If the court charged them with robbery, then the court should decide who is the owner of the land,” he said.
Chan Soveth confirmed that the 112 families were the original owners of the land. But a statement issued by Battambang provincial Governor Prach Chan last month ordered the land to be conferred to the 46 families.