Lawyer Insists R’kiri Land Deal Is Valid

A lawyer for Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister Keat Kolney has dismissed claims by Rata­nak­kiri province villagers that she purchased their land illegally, claiming that villagers and local officials all a-   g­reed to the controversial land sale.

The statement by attorney Chhe Vibol came as Ratanakkiri Provin­cial Court announced that it has indefinitely postponed the interviewing of 12 ethnic minority villagers—who are seeking legal action against Keat Kolney—because they cannot speak Khmer.

In a statement dated March 30 and provided Monday, Chhe Vibol said Keat Kolney legally purchased the disputed 450 hectares in O’Yadaw district’s Pate commune from 101 families for $180 per hectare in August 2004.

“My client has made land ownership transfer documents with the villagers one by one,” he said. Village elders, tribal chiefs, and commune and district officials also participated in the deal, he added.

“The ethnic people themselves agreed to sell, no one forced them,” Chhe Vibol said by telephone, adding that he issued the statement to assure people both inside and outside Cambodia that his client is innocent of land grabbing.

An Samnang, a judge at the provincial court, said he tried to question some of the 12 Jarai minority villagers March 23, but could not continue because they could not speak Khmer clearly.

“We have questioned some of [the villagers] and it moved forward a little bit, but we could not understand each other,” he said, adding that a lawyer for the villagers re­quested the postponement.

Ith Mathoura, a Community Le­gal Education Center lawyer representing the villagers, confirmed that she had requested the postponement, adding that CLEC has found two translators and is now waiting for the court to resume questioning.

Ith Mathoura also reiterated that the land was purchased illegally from the villagers.

The land purchased is communal pro­perty set aside for minority villagers exclusively, and buying or selling such land is forbidden under the 2001 Land Law, Ith Mathoura said.

“The [villagers] are ethnic Jarai people. They have no right to sell the land and no one else has the right to occupy their land,” she added.


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