Court Rebuffs Koh Kong Families Seeking to Reclaim Land

The Court of Appeal on Tuesday rejected the request of five families from Koh Kong province to nullify the deals they made seven years ago to give up their land to a local sugarcane plantation on the grounds that they were coerced.

Presiding Judge Chay Chandaravan said the Koh Kong Provincial Court’s decision to reject their request in 2015 was “correct,” but offered no other explanation for upholding the original verdict.

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Land rights protesters from Koh Kong province gathered outside the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, seeking a solution to a land dispute involving a plantation owned by businessman Heng Huy. (Satoshi Takahashi)

The five families are among a group of 15 accusing the Heng Huy Agriculture Group’s plantation in Sre Ambel district of grabbing land that covers a total of 59 hectares.

Though the families have no titles for the land, some of them claim to have been living on the site since the early 1980s. This should grant them some legal protection, they say.

The five families agreed to give up their land in 2010 for new plots elsewhere but changed their minds in 2012, filing a complaint with the provincial court claiming the company threatened to clear their land and leave them with nothing if they refused to accept its offer.

After Tuesday’s decision, Phav Nhoeung, one of the plaintiffs, said she would appeal to the Supreme Court.

“It is very unjust for us,” she said. “We absolutely cannot accept this court’s decision.”

“We are the victims,” said Soung Rin, another plaintiff. “Our land was grabbed and yet we lost the case.”

Heng Huy, owner of the eponymous company, said he was pleased with the court’s decision, but added that he might sue Ms. Nhoeung for defamation for accusing him of stealing land.

“Our company did not grab their land,” he said. “It was they who grabbed our land. She is playing politics and inciting the people to demonstrate.”

Mr. Huy said he obtained a title for his 779-hectare plantation, including the plot in dispute, in 1993.

The government has on numerous occasions handed out leases for commercial plantations and other large projects with little regard for who is living on the land or for how long they’ve lived there.

In some cases, leases have been approved without prior completion of the social and environmental impact assessments required by law.

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