A US oil company this week vowed to fight a Supreme Court ruling in a complex land dispute that has sparked a confrontation between the government and judiciary.
Representatives for Caltex, which is building a gas station on a disputed piece of land in the Chamkar Mon district of Phnom Penh, said they will ask the Constitutional Council, the nation’s top legal body, to review a high court ruling against them.
Supreme Court officials, in turn, have blasted the government for moving to protect one of Cambodia’s largest investors and violating judicial authority. A government lawyer last month told municipal authorities to disregard the court’s decision.
And Caltex officials have decried the court’s decision against them as a malicious targeting of deep-pocketed foreign investors.
David Doran, a lawyer representing Caltex Cambodia Ltd, said Wednesday he would ask the council to review the interpretation of Article 44 of the Constitution in the Jan 29 Supreme Court decision to seize the land.
“The right to confiscate possession from any person shall be exercised only in the public interest as provided for under law and shall require fair and just compensation in advance,” it reads.
The request is pending the convening of the nine-member Constitutional Council, Doran said. The legal body is charged with ruling on interpretations of Cambodia’s Constitution.
The last members of the council were appointed only last week, five years after the body was called for under the 1993 Constitution. It is unclear when it will convene.
At issue is a Jan 29 Supreme Court decision to dispossess Caltex of the land and sell it to compensate a Belgian national.
The dispute dates back to a 1993 Municipal Court decision that awarded the land to Michel Seeger for compensation in a separate business deal in which he was allegedly swindled by a past owner of the land.
Appeals against the 1993 ruling were struck down by the Supreme Court last May.
However, Seeger claims the land was subsequently sold out from under him and that he was never reimbursed the almost $600,000 the courts allowed.
Caltex bought the land in June 1997. It was the third change of ownership since a poorly documented sale in 1991 voided any subsequent transactions of the land, the Supreme Court ruled.
Caltex officials said Wednesday that the disputed land is worth more than $800,000 and complained that the Supreme Court ruling does not reimburse them for the loss. Doran said the Municipal Court is at fault for not issuing a lien in 1993 against the land being sold.
In a Wednesday letter to The Cambodia Daily, Caltex Cambodia General Manager John Raeside warned that the Supreme Court ruling could call into question the viability of any land deal in Cambodia and sour the business climate for investors.
“It should be clear to everyone that any attempt by the court to seize and sell Caltex’s land is an unconstitutional expropriation of private property,” Raeside wrote.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Director Um Sarith, in an April 27 letter to Raeside, charged the firm was directly violating the law by continuing to build on the land.
Raeside confirmed Wednesday the company is still building on the land. He said Caltex has defied the court because it feels the Jan 29 decision is flawed and the government has taken its side.
“We feel we’re in the right,” Raeside said in an interview at Caltex’s Phnom Penh offices. “Plus, the Council of Ministers has been so supportive.”
The Council of Ministers entered the dispute in February when Caltex, which has invested $25 million in Cambodia since 1995, complained to the Cabinet.
Raeside said his company never threatened the government with pulling out of Cambodia unless they threw their weight behind Caltex. “We’ve never said it and we never will,” Raeside said. But he did not dismiss suggestions that Caltex’s sizable investment here influenced the government to step in.
In an April 1 letter to then-acting Head of State Chea Sim, a lawyer for the Council of Ministers, Kao Bun Hong, cited the importance of Caltex’s “big loyal” investment to Cambodia and called the Supreme Court decision a “mistake.”
And Chea Sim, in an April 6 letter to the Ministry of Justice, effectively asked that the court decision be changed. He asked that the ministry “withdraw” the disputed land from the court’s decision and order other properties seized and sold instead.
Ty Neng, director of the criminal and civil department for the Ministry of Justice, said Wednesday he had recently received Chea Sim’s letter and is reviewing the judgment and the background. The ministry cannot alter the decision, but legal observers say it is common for the government to analyze a decision. It is unclear if the Ministry of Justice can request a retrial.
The Supreme Court ruling would be on hold if the Council reviewed the case. But a few glitches may stand in the case’s path to the council.
One foreign legal expert said Thursday the Supreme Court must approve forwarding of the case to the council.
Doran noted that Chan Sok, the former Supreme Court president whose signature is at the bottom of the Jan 29 ruling against Caltex, is on the council.
Also, a legal expert said last week the council could be tied up with election-related complaints for months.
(Additional reporting by Kimsan Chantara, Khuy Sokhoeun and Rachel Watson)