Since 2008, the country’s courts have sentenced a total of 145 villagers involved in land disputes to prison terms, while almost 80 others are currently being detained and awaiting trial, according to data released yesterday by the human rights organization Adhoc.
According to Ouch Leng, land program officer for Adhoc, all of those villagers were charged after private companies or high-ranking government officials lodged complaints against them. He stressed that this indicated the court system was being used as a tool for a land-grabbing elite.
Mr Leng said monitoring data showed that as of Monday the courts in Phnom Penh and in 10 provinces had sent 48 people to prison so far this year for their involvement in land disputes, while a further 24 villagers were in provisional detention awaiting trial.
In 2009, 37 people were sentenced to prison terms by the courts and in 2008 60 people were convicted. Of those sentenced in the past two years, seven remained in prison, bringing the total number of villagers currently behind bars in relation to land disputes to 79 people, according to Adhoc data.
“On average they received more than one-year sentences,” Mr Leng said, adding that in a number of cases people received more severe sentences, such as Chan Vichet, Ly Youleng and Khieu Bunthoeun, representatives of the former Dey Krahorm community in Phnom Penh who received 18-month prison terms in February 2009 for destroying property and causing injury.
Kratie Provincial Court sentenced the most people this year over incidents arising from land disputes with 13 convictions, followed by Siem Reap province, where the court sentenced 11 people, according to Adhoc, while 17 villagers were still being held in provisional detention in Kratie province.
Another 31 villagers were behind bars in relation to land disputes in Kompong Thom, Takeo, Kampot, Kompong Speu, Prey Veng, Svay Rieng, Oddar Meanchey, Kompong Cham and Battambang provinces and in Phnom Penh, Adhoc’s records show.
Mr Leng said that in all cases Adhoc had monitored the courts and had acted in accordance with the legal complaints filed by private companies or high-ranking government or military officials.
“When the villagers file a written complaint against a company the court does not act, but when a company files a complaint by telephone the court makes the arrests quickly,” Mr Leng said. “The courts always work like that, without proof or investigation.”
Prom Sidhra, secretary of state of the Ministry of Justice, said he could not comment without knowledge of the individual cases. “I will look into the cases before responding,” he added.
Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court deputy prosecutor Tan Seihak Dechak said the courts did not detain villagers over land disputes but only over criminal acts.
A “land dispute is a civil case but if [villagers] falsify documents or pull out [company] fences it is a criminal case,” he said. Villagers “should… solve land disputes through the court.”
Siem Reap provincial prosecutor Ty Sovannthal simply denied the courts had taken action against villagers involved in land disputes.
“We only help them,” he said, before hanging up.