A Ratanakkiri provincial judge ruled Friday against ethnic hill tribe villagers who have been fighting for two years to keep 1,250 hectares of their ancestral land out of the hands of a Phnom Penh army general.
The villagers, ethnic Jarai and Tampuan from Chrong, Chet and Klik villages in Barkeo district, complained to the court in 1999 after they realized documents that a handful of villagers signed in 1997 handed over a legal land title to RCAF General Noun Phea.
After a daylong trial, Judge Nong Sok read the verdict just before 6 pm. Soon after, villagers calmly received the verdict in their native languages and later received an explanation of the verdict by their lawyers, Ea Sopheap and Yim Simene of Legal Aid of Cambodia.
Ea Sopheap and Yim Simene questioned the fairness of the trial, complaining that the judge refused to consider documents brought to the courtroom Friday. They said they will appeal the decision to a Phnom Penh court.
Province Governor Kham Khoeun said he believed a more complete investigation by the court would have brought a different result. “I am not satisfied with this decision, but I am not able to say if it is unfair,” he said.
Ea Sopheap said court officials asked him earlier this week to persuade villagers not to react angrily to an unfavorable verdict.
Court officials moved the location of the trial from the courthouse to a larger building normally used for political meetings in Banlung, the provincial capital. Human rights and NGO workers from Phnom Penh and Banlung were among the more than 150 people who attended the trial.
At least 60 people testified Friday, Ea Sopheap said. Fifteen villagers, including some children who thumbprinted documents in 1997, were among the witnesses.
Villagers, most of whom cannot read, have said they did not understand that the documents gave away their land, which is located along Route 19, about halfway between Banlung and the Vietnam border.
The villagers have received help from Adhoc, Oxfam Great Britain and Human Rights Watch Asia, which issued a briefing memo earlier this year that said the case “addresses the issue of land rights for indigenous peoples in Cambodia…[and] the broader problem of unlawful seizures of land by powerful government officials.”
As more and more Khmers move to Ratanakkiri in search of land and work, ethnic hill tribe villagers, who make up the majority of the population of the province and are mostly illiterate, are being pressured or cheated out of their land.
Villagers claim that district officials and a local soldier working on behalf of Nuon Phea said that a school, a new road or water wells could be built if they signed the documents. But villagers said they have never received development or money. Only a few kilograms of salt have been given to each family, they said.
A former commander of Military Region 1, Nuon Phea was transferred to a post at the Ministry of Defense in Phnom Penh in 1999 after Global Witness reported his alleged involvement in illegal logging in Ratanakkiri.