Siem Reap Provincial Court charged 14 villagers Monday with illegally clearing state forest for allegedly felling acacia trees on the land they were farming in Banteay Srei district, a court official said yesterday.
Thirty-two people were arrested Monday after the provincial forestry administration accused them of illegally clearing state land in Tbeng commune, provincial deputy prosecutor Heng Pheng said. The court charged 14 of the villagers because the remaining suspects escaped from the provincial military police headquarters yesterday, he added.
“We charged them under article 98 of the Forestry Law,” the prosecutor said. Article 98 of the Forestry law sets out a punishment of one to five years in prison and/or fines ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 for anyone found guilty of illegally clearing state forested land.
Villager Kao Sophy said her husband and 13 other villagers were forced to confess to felling trees within the state forest.
“Authorities forced them to thumbprint the statement,” she said. “My husband said he was told if he did not thumbprint they would not allow him or other villagers to leave.”
About 60 people protested outside the provincial court yesterday for the release of the villagers, she added.
“We want to get intervention from [Prime Minister] Hun Sen to release the 14 people and give us the land,” she said.
Ms Sophy said the villagers began farming the land around 1998, but authorities planted acacia trees in 2002. She admitted that villagers had cut a few trees to clear the land for farming, but she said many had been burned in a fire sometime during the Khmer New Year.
“The authorities promised to give us land somewhere else, but we didn’t receive it,” she said. “We don’t have land for planting crops for many years.”
Chan Soveth, a senior monitor for local rights group Adhoc, said his organization will provide a lawyer to the villagers within the next few days.
“I urge the provincial authorities and the court to investigate clearly before arresting any villagers,” he said.