On-the-Run Crocodile Farmer Fights Jail Term

The Court of Appeal on Wednesday heard the case of a local businesswoman who is on the run after being sentenced to jail in 2012 for encroaching on public land and illegally filling in part of a lake in Phnom Penh.

The businesswoman, Chhin Sokountheary—who is also known colloquially as Yeay Krapoeu, or Grandma Crocodile, because of her crocodile farming business—alleges she was only convicted because she was entangled in a dispute over the land with then-municipal governor Kep Chuktema.

She has long claimed that Mr. Chuktema stole her land with the intention of selling it on to sugar magnate Ly Yong Phat, and in late 2012 took out a number of full-page ads in local media to call attention to her case and lambast the ex-governor. She also sued Mr. Chuktema last year.

Despite her public relations campaign, she was convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and sentenced to more than four years in prison. Her current whereabouts are not known.

In a letter she sent to the media earlier this month, she argued that Mr. Chuktema and people close to him had reaped “hundreds of millions of dollars” in profits from the theft of her land, and that he should have been given a jail sentence, not her.

She said she was “the true owner and the aggrieved party” in the case.

During Wednesday’s appeal hearing over her conviction, prosecutors said Ms. Sokountheary had taken over land belonging to the state, as well as illegally filling in Pong Peay Lake in Sen Sok district.

“Pong Peay is a natural lake, which is state land,” said prosecutor Hean Rith.

“According to the facts, Chhin Sokountheary was occupying state land because she has no land title, and I think the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s decision was correct.”

Yim Sary, a lawyer representing City Hall, reiterated that Ms. Sokountheary had colluded with local officials to fraudulently claim ownership of 33 hectares of land.

But one of the businesswoman’s lawyers, Ly Rathy, said his client legally bought the land in 1994—a deal that was approved by authorities.

A verdict in the case will be handed down on April 22. Neither Mr. Chuktema nor Mr. Yong Phat could be reached for comment.

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