Ancient beliefs clashed with modern laws on Tuesday as a mob of 200 people amassed at Kompong Speu provincial courthouse demanding the release of six men accused of beating up the son-in-law of a woman they say is a witch.
“They came with violence,” said Kompong Speu court Prosecutor Ven Yoeun. “They were ready to thrust, beat and chop.”
So great was the threat, he added, that he could not question the suspects. The mob remained outside the court from 8 to 10 am, and left without violence after the court released the six men without charge, officials said.
The story began late last year, when six residents of Prey Tumnop in Kong Pisey district’s Moharussey commune dropped dead within a week. The local fortuneteller pinned the deaths on magic, fingering an elderly villager named Som Sei as a sorceress, said Tuy Khen, deputy district police chief.
The villagers were not satisfied when staff at a local hospital insisted the deaths had been caused by disease, not black magic, he said.
On Jan 1, villagers gathered around Som Sei’s house and accused her of being a witch. She refused to go outside, but her son-in-law, Pov Yom, faced the crowd and was beaten up, police and rights workers said.
Then, in mid-January, villagers tore down Som Sei’s house, forcing the family to take refuge in the district police office, police said.
Pov Yom then filed a complaint accusing six men of leading the violence against him. On Tuesday, the men were brought to the district police office for questioning, and the 200 villagers, still thirsting for vengeance against Som Sei and her family, followed, police said.
“People won’t listen,” said Sok Khemarin, deputy provincial deputy police chief. “Police are defending the family at the police district office.”
But Rath Thavy, an investigator for local rights group Adhoc, suspects the violence may have to do with something far more prosaic than magic: Land.
He said the persecuted family had long been locked in a fight with neighbors over the border of their rice field, and that this may be exacerbating the tension.