Dozens of ethnic minority Kreung villagers protested outside the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court on Monday, demanding the release of a fellow Kreung man presently in pretrial detention for setting fire to a pile of wood on land the community sold in 2007 but claims it was never given money for.
Haing Noeu, 50, was arrested Friday for leading a group of villagers to the site of the land dispute and helping set fire to a pile of wood set aside for the new owner’s office building. He was charged with destruction of private property the next day and is being held at the provincial prison.
Kaveat Poeung said he and 51 other Kreung villagers gathered in front of the provincial court for six hours shouting for the release of Mr. Noeu, whom they insist was rightfully protecting the community’s interests.
“We’re protesting today to demand the release of Mr. Noeu because he was only protecting the rights of the villagers,” he said.
Provincial court director Sous La said the protesters were not helping their cause.
“I don’t want to interfere because this is a court case, but they should find a lawyer to work with the court to solve the problem instead of holding a protest,” he said.
The villagers say they sold 400 hectares of their land to businessman Sing Visith in 2007 for a planned rubber plantation but had yet to be paid the $20,000 they were promised at the time.
Mr. La, the court director, said he did not know about the particulars of the dispute because the villagers had never filed a complaint.
“I don’t know about the sale of the land, and we can’t open an investigation unless they file a complaint with the court,” he said. “How can the court investigate without a complaint?”
The villagers only filed a complaint with rights group Adhoc on Friday because it was the first time they had seen anyone trying to clear the land. Chhay Thy, Adhoc’s provincial coordinator in Ratanakkiri, said his organization would be filing their complaint with the court soon.
Mr. Visith, the businessman, claimed the villagers had been paid.
“I already paid $20,000 to the landowners when I bought the land from them in 2007,” he said.
Mr. Visith added that the court had since awarded the land to Ly Sok Nim, a businesswoman who had an injunction placed on the site because of a loan he had taken from her in 2010 and failed to repay.