Fearing Representatives’ Arrest, Kratie Villagers Rally at Court

About 300 Stieng ethnic minority villagers gathered at the Kratie Provincial Court on Monday to prevent their representatives from being arrested after the representatives were summoned to the court for questioning related to a land dispute with a local firm, rights workers and officials said.

Villager representatives Saroeun Keth, 48, Chhuon Chan, 35, Van Vy, 28, and Rath Keout, 20, were summoned to the court by Inves­tigating Judge Touch Saroeun after being accused by local land development firm CIV of destroying workers’ tents and robbing about $2,500, said lawyer Suorng Sophea of the NGO Community Legal Education Center, who is representing the four men.

Suorng Sophea said the four were not questioned, as court officials were apparently not at the courthouse Monday.

“We were finally blocked by police and military police from entering the courthouse, [with police officers] saying the court officials were busy at a meeting and nobody was at work,” he said by telephone.

Saroeun Keth said the hundreds of villagers had accompanied him and the other men, as they were concerned by the court’s possible actions, particularly in light of a recent incident in Ratanakkiri province where village representatives involved in a land dispute there were summoned by the court for questioning and then subsequently arrested.

Judge Touch Saroeun could not be contacted for comment.

Monday’s questioning stemmed from events Oct 5 when a group of about 300 villagers from Snuol district’s Pi Thnou and Sre Cha communes tried to stop CIV tractors from clearing 700 hectares of land, claiming they had farmed the land since 1979.

CIV Deputy Director Sok Chenda on Monday accused the four men summoned to the court of being ringleaders of the Oct 5 demonstration to stop his firm from clearing the land.

“Those angry protesters carried axes, hoes and knives, and re­moved the poles of my tents, for­cibly removing my workers’ tents,” Sok Chenda said, adding that $2,500 also went missing.

“I named them in my complaints, in order to let them be responsible for their improper act of inciting villagers,” he said, adding that the government had granted his firm 760 hectares of land to operate as a private concession in January.

Chheng Sophors, investigator for local rights group Licadho in Kratie, said Monday that he and other NGO workers had observed the Oct 5 protest and it had been peaceful.

“Civil society is deeply concerned the [CIV] company is using the court system to pressure protesters,” he said. “[The villagers] are protesting to protect their farmland left to them by their ancestors.”

Snuol District Governor Iv Saphum said the majority of villagers in the area understood the government’s policy of granting concessions of land to private firms, “but a few of these ringleaders incite innocent people to join them to grab the government’s land granted to the company.”

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