Representatives of more than 100 NGOs appealed to Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday to intervene for the release of 38 villagers charged and jailed over land disputes.
Thun Saray, chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, which represents 23 local rights groups, said at a news conference in Phnom Penh that during the first 10 months of the year, 121 villagers were arrested over land disputes and 38 are still in jail.
Last year, Hun Sen had promised that villagers would no longer be arrested over land disputes, Thun Saray said.
“But arrests and detentions still continue and, this year, there have been a lot more,” he said, adding that the number of arrests this year already surpassed last year’s grand total of 78.
In March 2006, Hun Sen ordered the release of villagers detained over land disputes during a meeting of the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes.
Chhit Sam Ath, executive director of the umbrella organization NGO Forum on Cambodia, said that government measures have not given justice to the poor.
“Evictions have made villagers poorer and poorer and hopeless,” he said. Stepping up the government program of land registration in areas with ongoing land disputes could help reduce such events, he said.
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor and Hun Sen adviser Pa Socheatvong denied that villagers are being arrested because of land disputes.
“Land issues cannot lead to arrests,” he said. “They were not charged for land disputes, they were charged for other crimes,” including using violence and destroying other people’s property, he said.
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said that evictions are not further impoverishing villagers.
“It’s just a change of housing—we don’t intend [to make them poorer],” he said.