Relatives of eight men jailed last week for taking part in a land dispute protest in Kompong Speu province’s Oral district said they will appeal the court’s decision, which defense lawyers branded biased and unfair.
The eight were convicted of illegally encroaching on private land, fined 50 million riel (approximately $12,500) and sentenced to one year in prison by Kompong Speu Provincial Court on Jan 17.
Arrest warrants were also issued for 21 more villagers, who are currently in hiding but who were convicted in absentia by the court and given one-year suspended sentences dependent on the completion of a five-year probation period. The 21 were also ordered to pay their part of the $12,500 fine.
The convictions were the latest development in a complex land dispute case in Oral district, where farmers mounted protests late last year when police and military officials attempted to evict them from their land.
“They have decided to appeal the decision” Sok Him, a representative of the villagers, said on Sunday. The appeal will be lodged once contact has been made with the 21 villagers who are still on the run, he said. “They want to appeal together,” he added.
Protesters from the disputed land, who say more than 200 homes were razed by soldiers in Oral, are currently protesting in Phnom Penh.
“The decision is unfair,” Chhe Vibol, a lawyer from the local rights group Adhoc representing the villagers, said on Thursday.
Kompong Speu Court Director Pol Vorn, who presided over the trial, defended his verdict saying it “was fair and lawful” and invited those with concerns to appeal.
Relatives of the convicted men criticized the court’s decision and complained that defendants’ relatives had been barred from entering the courtroom.
Tuot Lux, secretary of state at the Justice Ministry, said last week that the ministry sent a formal letter to the court urging it to act justly in the case of the eight men arrested in late November and early December.
However, he added on Sunday, the justice ministry has “no right to order court’s decision.”