Prime Minister Hun Sen, King Norodom Sihanouk and various legal NGOs Tuesday settled a long-running land dispute between ethnic hill tribes in Ratanakkiri and an RCAF general accused of trying to take 1,250 hectares of land from them illegally.
The final settlement was decided by Hun Sen, who on Monday approved $35,000 in compensation for RCAF General Noun Phea, the man accused by lawyers of falsifying more than 240 land titles, an official said.
The titles showed that he owned the land that many NGOs said originally belonged to ethnic Jarai and Tampuan villagers in Barkeo district, an official from the Ministry of Land Management, Urbanization and Construction said late Tuesday.
The prime minister’s Cabinet Monday also drafted letters for the ethnic minorities showing them to be the rightful owners of the land, the official said.
“This is a case many local and international NGOs involved in land issues, such as Adhoc, Human Rights Watch and Legal Aid of Cambodia, have cared a lot about,” said George Cooper, legal adviser to Legal Aid of Cambodia, which has worked since 1999 on the Ratanakkiri case. “This case is so important because there are so many cases like it.”
The case arose in 1999, when the ethnic minorities complained to the provincial court that a handful of villagers transferred legal title of their land to Noun Phea.
The ethnic minorities, with legal assistance from Legal Aid, brought the general to provincial court.
The court, however, sided with the general in March 2001 in a ruling that Cooper said “did not follow the law.”
Ea Sopheap, a Legal Aid attorney who worked on the case in March 2001, said Tuesday that Legal Aid presented evidence showing that Noun Phea either misled people into signing or falsified 240 land title documents.
“In some cases, they had children’s thumbprints on the land titles,” Ea Sopheap said.
The local authorities transferred the land titles to the general for $40,000, he said.
Legal Aid filed an appeal in Phnom Penh Court of Appeals after the March 2001 verdict was handed down. On Monday, the appeals court heard testimony from one hill tribe member, but adjourned the hearing due to lack of evidence, a court observer said.
On Tuesday, six hill tribe members, representatives from the UN office of Human Rights and a Legal Aid attorney met with King Norodom Sihanouk, who said he would intervene on their behalf.
Later in the day, the Ministry of Land Management confirmed that Hun Sen and his Cabinet agreed to grant land titles to the ethnic hill tribe members, an official said.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)