banlung district, Ratanakkiri province – Krin Khang was overjoyed but still too weak on Friday to drink the rice wine with which his fellow Tampuon villagers toasted his release from prison, almost two years after he was allegedly framed for murdering his nephew.
The conflict began, like so many in remote Ratanakkiri, over a plot of farmland.
It ended with one villager dead, his uncle imprisoned and the uncle’s family selling their modest possessions and land to pay off allegedly corrupt officials.
“They accused me of killing my nephew, but I regarded him as my son,” Krin Khang said. “He used to live with me.”
“I don’t know who killed my nephew,” he said. “But I think it had to do with the land.”
Living in Yeak Laom commune’s Phnom village, Krin Khang, 53, was an active member of his community’s Natural Resource Management Committee, according to a document prepared by Jeremy Ironside, an advisor to the NGO Centre D’Etude Et De Developpement Agricole Cambodgien, who worked to free Krin Khang.
The killing of Ven Jahang and the jailing of Krin Khang followed years of disputes over land ownership between residents of Lapo village, which was moved from its traditional land to make space for Banlung town in the 1980s, and those of Phnom village.
Negotiations conducted over jars of wine between the two villages ended in drunken conflict on Dec 4, 2003.
The following day, Ven Jahang, who was in his mid-40s, was shot dead from nearby bushes when he stopped to remove a log from the road as he drove his two children home.
Krin Khang was arrested for the murder of his nephew, though he swore he was away cutting timber at the time of the shooting.
Detained by penal police, Krin Khang claims he was tortured: tied up and hung from the ceiling, beaten by two men with wooden rods until he fell unconscious and had a gun pointed at his forehead and chest.
“They beat me for two days and two nights to get a confession, but I had nothing to confess,” Krin Khang said.
Chea Bun Thoeun, who was provincial penal police chief at the time and is now deputy provincial police chief, said police who torture prisoners should be prosecuted.
“If police did anything like that, they seriously violated the law,” he said. “They should be punished.”
Ratanakkiri court documents, signed by deputy director of the court Norng Sok and court clerk Yun Than, included police records stating that Krin Khang sustained a head injury when he told police he needed to urinate and then tried to escape.
The same document included testimony from four witnesses for Krin Khang, including Dan Jin, the wife of his dead nephew.
“Krin Khang is my uncle, and I strongly believe that my uncle couldn’t have killed my husband…. He loved my husband as his own son,” Dan Jin said, according to the document.
Despite being acquitted by Ratanakkiri Provincial Court in 2004, Krin Khang was detained in jail while the prosecutor appealed the decision to the Appeals Court.
Krin Khang was released on Thursday following an Appeals Court ruling upholding the provincial court’s acquittal.
“The partial investigation of the judiciary police, investigating judge and prosecutor found nothing,” Appeals Court Prosecutor General Hanrot Raken wrote.
The court also asked the Ratanakkiri prosecutor to reinvestigate the case and find the real culprit.
Krin Khang’s wife, Piang Jar, 43, said Friday that she sold two plots of land, two buffaloes and timber saved for a new home to pay off court officials. She also borrowed almost $250 from her brother, who sold two cows to get the money.
“I feel like I have been seriously cheated by the court’s people. What I paid them didn’t help my husband. He was only freed by the human rights workers, who didn’t ask anything of me,” Piang Jar said.
“I don’t have any more land,” she said, adding that Norng Sok, deputy director of the court, was one of the officials who were paid.
Norng Sok denied the allegations Monday.
“I never took any money from her,” he said. “But I have helped her a lot. For example, I issued the warrant to release her husband.”
Even when documents from the Appeals Court authorizing Krin Khang’s release arrived at the prison in Banlung last week, officials demanded money, Piang Jar said.
Persistence and a phone call to the prison chief eventually whittled the price down to the cost of photocopying the documents, witnesses said.
“This case is a good illustration of how local authorities, including court officials, take advantage of land disputes between indigenous villages—even from the same ethnicity—to convict someone on limited evidence, take advantage of their vulnerability and ignorance of the judicial system to extort exorbitant amounts of money and land from them and conduct land speculation,” Ironside wrote.