A lawyer representing Ratanakkiri province villagers claimed Wednesday that the sale of 500 hectares of land to Keat Kolney, Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister, was illegal on several counts.
Legal Aid of Cambodia lawyer Ny Chandy said the 2004 sale of land in O’Yadaw district by ethnic minority villagers violated articles 26 to 28 of the 2001 Land Law, which bans the sale of indigenous people’s communal lands.
“It is illegal, because no one can buy communal land,” he said. “The land must be used for public interest, not for private or individual interests.”
He also said that the alleged pressuring of villagers, who were plied with rice wine and beer during negotiations, into a sale agreement they did not fully understand invalidates the contract.
“Even if you are rich and powerful people, it is wrong and illegal for you to use power and money to take others’ possessions,” Ny Chandy said.
Forty-eight families reportedly received $400 each to hand over rights to the 500-hectare tract of land, a price that works out to some $38 per hectare.
Keat Kolney is married to Land Management Ministry Secretary of State Chhan Saphan.
Ith Sam Ath, who identified himself as a representative of Keat Kolney and the little-known Farmers Association for Development, denied the sale was illegal.
“[Keat Kolney] used her money to buy the land legally from those villagers,” Ith Sam Ath said. “We have clear evidence to prove our legal right to own the land, because I filmed and took pictures while villagers received money and thumbprinted the contract to sell their land to our association.”
Ith Sam Ath added that Keat Kolney called him on Wednesday morning to discuss the possibility that media reports and villagers’ complaints might reach the upper levels of government.
“She does not want you to send complaints to Samdech [Prime Minister] Hun Sen and other ministries,” he said.
“It will be better if you can stop writing this story,” he added.
Keat Kolney and Chhan Saphan could not be reached for comment.
Villager representative Sear Kimphan, 52, from Kong Yoak village, where the deal took place, claimed that local officials had pressured and tricked the 48 families into thumbprinting documents they did not understand.
“They know we are illiterate and powerless people,” Sear Kimphan said.
“They threw a party and [pressured] villagers to thumbprint blank paper,” he said, adding that local officials told them that they would lose the land regardless of whether they accepted the money or refused.
A report prepared in October 2004 by the Community Legal Education Center’s Public Interest Legal Advocacy Project supports Sear Kimphan’s account.
“Officials said that if the villagers would not give the land to the development, the land would be taken and the people would not get any money,” Pilap senior attorney Huon Chandy wrote.
“The villagers couldn’t read the contract, it was not read to them and they weren’t allowed to look at the contract.”
The Pilap report said officials gave villagers two cases of Crown beer and two jars of rice wine for a party and then waited until around 10 pm to collect thumbprints on Aug 20, 2004.
“Villagers thumbprinted two or three times on the same piece of paper,” the report reads. “They thumbprinted on plain papers, with no names and no contract or document attached.”
The report cites numerous legal reasons to void the sale, including the use of threats, inebriation and villagers’ ignorance of the terms of the agreement, which violate numerous articles of a 1988 decree on contracts.