About 80 Battambang villagers walked to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house in Takhmau town Monday to protest the prison terms imposed on their village representatives over a land dispute with a government official.
The villagers left Kors Kralor district’s Dounba commune Friday, a day after the Battambang court sentenced five of their representatives to five years in prison and payment of $13,000 in damages to Soum Bun Theoun, a Ministry of Defense official with whom they are disputing ownership of 558 hectares of land.
The five were convicted of robbery and destruction of property because they disassembled a house and rebuilt it further away in the commune. Tep Samkhan, one of the five men convicted, claims ownership of the house, as does Soum Bun Theoun.
The villagers said they were met both Monday and Tuesday by Hun Sen’s deputy cabinet chief, Lim Leang Se, who promised the prime minister’s help.
“Mr Lim Leang Se told us that Samdech Hun Sen would find justice for us,” Luong Sokha, a villager, said by telephone Tuesday.
Lim Leang Se could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday.
Hun Sengly, who was arrested Aug 22, is being detained, while the other four—Tep Samkhan, Kong Sokheout, Touch Vandy and Ya Mak—were convicted in absentia. A warrant was issued for their arrest, said Judge Nov Yarath, who presided over the trial.
A sixth man, village chief Chhin Chhon, was acquitted for lack of evidence.
“It is their right to protest. If they think it is an injustice, they can complain to the Appeal Court,” Nov Yarath said.
A lawyer provided by local rights group Adhoc is preparing the men’s appeal, Adhoc President Thun Saray said.
“The court did not investigate fully, and they changed a civil case to a criminal case,” Thun Saray said.
Soum Bun Theoun declined to comment on the land dispute or give his title at the Ministry of Defense. Villagers, however, identified him as an official with the department of inspection at RCAF High Command.
“This case is not related to the land dispute. I just complained about them because they robbed me of my properties,” Soum Bun Theoun said.