Ratanakkiri Provincial Court officials plan to visit villagers embroiled in a dispute in O’Chum district on Tuesday to convince them to give up their claim on land in Ekkapheap commune.
Two of the villagers have been jailed since appearing in court for questioning on Jan 5, another has been hospitalized in Phnom Penh following an attack whose motive has yet to be determined and two failed to appear for questioning in court last week.
Villagers Chan Pheu and Khao Ry were arrested after being charged with allegedly infringing on the property rights of Khit Sok Khay, who has laid claim to the land on which the villagers have farmed for years.
On Tuesday, provincial authorities received a letter from the National Assembly asking for them to resolve the dispute after a petition thumbprinted by more than 100 Ekkapheap commune families was delivered to Phnom Penh, officials said.
On Wednesday, two more villagers summoned to Ratanakkiri provincial court refused to show up.
Provincial Court Deputy Director and Investigating Judge An Samnang said on Thursday that the visit to the village was not prompted by the National Assembly letter but by the villager’s failure to appear. He added that the two villagers were innocent of any wrongdoing.
“I do not want to arrest those innocent villagers,” An Samnang said. “I will visit the field to negotiate with them, because some of those families accepted money from the plaintiff but were then incited by bad people to demand their land back.”
Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the two detained villagers had their request for bail denied.
Robert Oberndorf, community forestry international legal and policy adviser, said that the villagers have a strong legal claim to the land, because Khit Sok Khay has not fulfilled his legal obligations when granted the land as an agricultural land concession in the mid-1990s.
Khit Sok Khay was required under the old land laws to maintain possession of the land, or else it reverted back to the state, and Ekkapheap villagers have been occupying and farming the land for years, Oberndorf noted. Khit Sok Khay could not be reached on Sunday.
Provincial Governor Kham Khoeun on Thursday declined to specify who had sent the Assembly letter seeking intervention in the dispute, but said he would try to resolve the case peacefully.