Court hands down three-year sentences over land clash, but suspends remaining jail time
Siem Reap Provincial Court on Friday convicted nine villagers for being members of an illegal armed force and sentenced them each to three years in prison, suspending all but the 17 months they have all already served in prison, the presiding judge said.
The men had allegedly carried axes and other weapons in a clash with authorities back in March 2009 over a land dispute in Chi Kreng district’s Chi Kreng commune. In that clash authorities allegedly fired weapons and injured four villagers, though no shooters were ever arrested, a point that continued to draw criticism from rights groups Friday.
The nine villagers were originally charged with attempted murder, but the charge was changed to membership in an illegal armed force under the UNTAC code’s Article 36, which deals with organized crime. The charge carries a minimum three-year sentence.
“We decided to change the charge on the nine suspects because we had enough evidence in the verdict’s statements,” said Presiding Judge Chhay Kong.
“They seem calm. Maybe they can accept the verdict,” he said, adding that all nine men were fined about $120.
The violent clash came after villagers accused authorities of illegally plotting to sell 475 hectares of their land.
The court yesterday convicted two of the men on contempt and illegal-confinement charges for their roles in allegedly locking the courthouse doors during a Jan 2009 protest over the same land dispute.
The trials of all the men were delayed several times during the past month.
Local rights group Adhoc on Friday issued a statement criticizing the verdict and sentences, which it said had wrongly punished the victims of a land dispute.
“Adhoc’s observations have found [that] injustice happened to Chi Kreng villagers again and again since 2008 until the present,” the statement said.
“We express our regret to the Siem Reap Provincial Court that decided to jail nine people in a land dispute on criminal charges,” the statement continued.
Local Adhoc coordinator Mao Yin said the fact that villagers were punished but not those who fired guns demonstrates the impunity that exists within the court system.
“I think that impunity occurred only toward the powerful people and high-ranking persons,” he said, adding that in general, “Poor people get imprisoned and rich people get bail.”
Am Sam Ath, senior monitor for the rights group Licadho, also criticized the authorities’ treatment of the case.
“Even now, the authorities still have not found and arrested the perpetrators,” he said. “Injustice always happens on villagers but perpetrators still have impunity.”
The Adhoc statement also accused police, monks and officials from the Ministry of Cults and Religion of attempting to defrock a monk from Chi Kreng who joined villagers to visit the court on Friday.
“We request the court system to please stop trying to arrest and threaten Monk Loun Sovath,” the statement said, calling the incident a rights violation.
He said by telephone Friday that about 200 villagers had intervened to prevent his arrest.
“I think that I did not do any wrong against the Buddhist religion, because I just wanted to know the verdict,” he said.
Provincial cults and religion department director Vann Bunna said authorities had attempted to defrock the monk because he had violating his precepts as a monk.
“If the monk commits this act again, the provincial Buddhist authority will defrock him,” he said.
Provincial prosecutor Sok Keobandith declined to comment on the case Friday, as he was busy in a meeting.