Keat Kolney, the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, has filed a criminal complaint against Jarai minority villagers and the lawyers representing them in a long-running dispute with her over 450 hectares of Ratanakkiri province land, her lawyer said June 25.
“She just told me today that she already filed it,” Keat Kolney’s attorney Chhe Vibol said. He said the lawsuit was filed in Ratanakkiri provincial court on June 21, but declined to disclose the charges in the complaint or to say exactly whom it names.
“I can’t talk yet because it might affect their reputations,” he said.
The court’s Prosecutor Mey Sokhan said he was not aware of the lawsuit being filed.
Huon Chundy, program manager at the Community Legal Education Center, which is representing the villagers, said he was aware of the complaint, adding that CLEC’s lawyers were innocent of any criminal wrongdoing. “We think that filing this lawsuit is a strategy to scare the community and some lawyers into making an agreement,” he said.
Peung Yok Hiep, director of Legal Aid of Cambodia, which is also representing the villagers, declined to comment in detail.
But she said: “I defend the right of my lawyers to defend the poor and indigenous people. We have not enough lawyers defending the poor in Cambodia.”
On June 19, Keat Kolney filed a complaint with the Cambodian Bar Association accusing seven lawyers from CLEC and three from LAC of politically motivated incitement. The bar is now investigating her complaint. On June 24, bar officials said CLEC is operating in violation of the law on the bar.
USAID provides funding for both CLEC and LAC, and in an e-mail June 25 US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle reiterated the US government’s support for their legal aid work, which he called “one of the cornerstones of a fair judicial system.”
He added that the embassy would be monitoring the progress of Keat Kolney’s apparent criminal suit against the attorneys closely. “We will be watching closely to see how the judicial authorities handle this complaint,” he wrote.
The bar association, he added, has the duty to regulate the professional conduct of its members, but it must do so in a way that “preserves the independence of its members and allows them to best represent the interests of their clients.”
Meanwhile, Chhe Vibol said he has requested that the civil suit villagers filed at the court against Keat Kolney in January be transferred to the O’Yadaw district cadastral commission, which is part of the district land management office. Their criminal complaint against her, he said, would remain in the Ratanakkiri court. Chhe Vibol justified the shift on the grounds that the villagers do not have land titles.
The cadastral commission, he said, has jurisdiction over such cases. If the district commission cannot resolve the dispute, the case could be passed on to provincial officials, and then to officials at the National Cadastral Commission within the Ministry of Land Management. Keat Kolney’s husband, Chhan Saphan, is a secretary of state in the Ministry of Land Management.
LAC lawyer Ny Chandy objected to the lawsuit’s transfer. “According to the law, it should be at the court when there is a lawsuit regarding a contract,” he said.