The Siem Reap Provincial Court has charged and jailed an opposition commune chief for signing off on documents allowing local villagers to mortgage land claimed by the government’s Apsara Authority, officials said on Friday.
Heang Sary, the chief of Siem Reap City’s Ampil commune and a member of the legacy Sam Rainsy Party, was arrested at the court on Thursday morning and summarily charged with issuing illegal documents and illegally interfering in the fulfillment of civil service, according to Sok Kimseng, deputy executive director of the CNRP in the province.
Contacted on Friday, Investigating Judge Chhun Chanseiha hung up on a reporter. However, he was quoted by local news website Voice of Democracy confirming the charges and saying that Mr. Sary faced up to five years in prison if found guilty.
About 200 villagers protested outside the provincial court on Thursday afternoon, demanding the commune chief’s release and arguing that the charges were politically motivated.
They noted that a CPP village chief who also signed off on the documents was not indicted, nor was Mr. Sary’s predecessor, a CPP commune chief who signed similar papers in the past.
The papers are used by villagers to confirm their land ownership in order to obtain mortgages from local banks.
“If we look at the administrative practice, the arrest and detention was politically motivated,” said Mr. Kimseng of the CNRP.
“He was detained because he signed off on land documents, but why was the village chief from the CPP party who also signed off in those documents not arrested and placed in prison?”
Moeung Leng, who took part in Thursday’s protest, said the villagers would continue to demonstrate until the commune chief was released.
“The charges are completely unfair because the commune chief just endorsed the paperwork after it was first signed by the village chief,” she said.
“We are the landlords and we have never been offered any money by the Apsara Authority to leave our land, so it’s not right to detain the commune chief who just endorsed our land documents.”
“The court should not have put him in prison because the commune chief did nothing wrong,” echoed Hang Koy, a villager from Ampil commune’s Prey Koy village.
Mr. Koy said that in 2014, Mr. Sary endorsed a land document for him, allowing him to mortgage his property and open a store.
“The commune chief has done everything for poor people, so the imprisonment is really unjust for him,” the 52-year-old villager said.
Residents of one village in Ampil commune say that more than 100 families have been living on the land since the 1980s, while others arrived in the early 2000s, and that it could not possibly belong to the Apsara Authority, a government body tasked with managing the sprawling Angkor Archaeological Park.
Im Sokrithy, a communications officer for the Apsara Authority, declined to comment when asked about the case and referred questions to authority spokesman Long Kosal, who could not be reached on Friday.
Suos Narin, provincial monitor for rights group Adhoc, said the complaint that led to the charges against Mr. Sary was filed by the Apsara Authority, which claims ownership of much of the land in the area.
“It’s been three generations of commune chiefs who have signed off on land documents for villagers, but the court just charged the latest elected commune chief from the Sam Rainsy Party,” he said.
“If [the charges are legitimate], why don’t the court and the Apsara Authority take action against the two previous commune chiefs from the CPP party?”
“We think it’s a threat to prevent commune chiefs from the opposition to act in favor of local villagers.”