The third judge assigned to investigate the long-running land dispute in Ratanakkiri province between ethnic Jarai villagers and the sister of Minister of Finance Keat Chhon has withdrawn from the three-year-old case, a court official said yesterday.
Judge Thor Saran’s departure means the case, which has meandered through the province’s court system since 2007, will not see the inside of a courtroom any time soon, Lou Sou Sambath, president of Ratanakkiri Provincial Court, said by telephone.
“He quit handling this case because it is a very complicated land dispute,” Judge Sambath said of Judge Saran’s withdrawal. “I have not yet decided who is going to be the fourth judge to handle this case. But I had heard that the three previous judges were too scared to hear this case.”
Judge Sambath said the four other judges and three trainee judges at his courthouse were all too busy with illegal-logging cases to take on the case of the Jarai villagers of O’Yadaw district versus Keat Kolney, Mr Chhon’s sister.
Judge Saran, who was assigned to the case in December 2008, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Lawyers for the villagers said they submitted a fourth “objection letter” yesterday, asking the court to appoint a new judge and to ensure the case goes to court quickly.
“We think the court’s procedures are too slow,” said Yin Savath, an attorney with legal-aid organization Community Legal Education Center. “Such delays, again and again, proves that the court is not willing to give justice to the complainants who are our clients.”
Dozens of families in Kong Yu village filed a complaint with the court in 2007 alleging that Ms Kolney and her representatives fooled them into signing over 450 hectares of ancestral land, 250 hectares of which have been planted with rubber trees and farmed as the villagers have mounted their legal challenge to Ms Kolney’s claim.
An attorney for Ms Kolney could not be reached yesterday. Despite a ban on sales of communally owned land, Ms Kolney says she obtained the land from the villagers fairly.
CLEC project officer Man Vuthy said he and two lawyers would travel to Kong Yu village today to inform villagers of the latest setback. Mr Vuthy called on the court to stop making excuses and give his clients a fair hearing.
“The court must make a decision on this case so that both parties can then make appeals,” Mr Vuthy said, adding that if the court does not fulfil its responsibilities, the plaintiffs would be forced to seek the help of a higher authority.
“Sooner or later, we will bring this case to the upper levels, such as the Ministry of Justice or the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, if there is no court decision,” he said.
Judge Sambath insisted yesterday his courthouse is independent.
“We are scared of nobody, because we are an independent institution…. This case is complicated, especially as the villagers do not cooperate [when] judges want to measure the disputed land,” he said.
Roman Hil, one of the complainants, said yesterday the court does not dare to hold a trial, as the judges know very well that the land in question belongs to the villagers.
“They fear trouble if they are brave and decide that the powerful and rich lady, Keat Kolney, is the loser,” Mr Hil said.