A lawyer representing four villagers who have been held in pretrial detention since Oct 24 over a land dispute with a senior RCAF official blasted the Siem Reap Provincial Court for offering the villagers the option of freedom if they forfeit their claim to the contested land.
Attorney Ly Sochetra said Tuesday that he was seeking the release of his clients on bail and that it was wrong for them to be pressured with the offer of freedom.
“It is absolutely wrong when court officials pressure and force pretrial detention prisoners to [sign agreements] in exchange for their release,” Ly Sochetra said.
More than 200 villagers protested in Siem Reap town Monday seeking the release of detainees Prok Nhan, 57, Tan Tik, 26, Khan Soeurn, 28, and Hem Ram, 49.
Provincial court Judge Khan Sokal, who jailed the four for alleged “land grabbing,” said that Siem Reap’s Deputy Provincial Governor Nou Phalla had visited the prisoners and that they had now agreed to “compromise” with RCAF provincial deputy commander Riem Sou.
Khan Sokal denied that any influence from the governor was involved in the court’s possible release of the prisoners if they agree to drop their claim to the land.
“[I] would be able to release them if they agree to fingerprint [agreements] to remove their houses from the land that is being claimed legally by another person,” Khan Sokal said.
He also said the 41 villagers, who claim they have farmed the disputed 20 hectares of land in Banteay Srei district for decades, have no evidence to support their ownership claims.
Contacted by telephone Tuesday, Nou Phalla confirmed that he visited the four prisoners, and since his meeting they had agreed to move from the disputed land after they harvest this year’s rice crop. The villagers, however, have asked that Riem Sou take 10 hectares and leave them with 10 hectares, Nou Phalla said.
“I cannot make judgment on who is right and who is wrong and who is the legal owner of the land,” he said.
“But I have written to the court seeking the release of the four detainees. Now the court can do its job to find out who is the owner of the land,” he added.
Sar Vannara, an investigator for local rights group Licadho in Siem Reap, said he met with the prisoners on Tuesday and that they have not agreed to drop their ownership claim to the land.
“It would mean that the villagers did grab the land if they agree to fingerprint documents to remove their residential homes,” Sar Vannara said.
“If fact, the villagers are the legal owners, but finally they were arrested and are being forced to [sign documents] to abandon their land,” he said.