Police Block Protest Convoy on Way to Land Trial

A group of villagers from Svay Rieng province involved in a land dispute with the Forestry Administration said police officers attempted to block them from traveling to the provincial court Wednesday morning to protest against the trial of three community leaders.

The court case dates back to 2008, when three brothers began a campaign to prevent the Forestry Administration from planting acacia trees on a 71.25-hectare plot of land that had been farmed by 86 families since 1979. In 2012, the administration filed a legal complaint against the three for inciting locals to illegally cut down trees.

At about 4 a.m. Wednesday, some 50 people from Romeas Hek district’s Andong Trabek commune came together in two vans and 10 motorbikes and headed to the court, where a hearing in the trial was scheduled for the morning.

But according to the protesters, the group was stopped along the way by about 20 district and commune police officers.

“The police set up a barricade to block our way,” said Sim Vuthea, 30, who was among the protesters. “They said we did not have permission to demonstrate.”

Ms. Vuthea said the protesters abandoned their vehicles and walked about 20 km to the border with Prey Veng province to get taxis to take them to the court because drivers that passed them in Svay Rieng said they had been ordered not to transport the group.

Commune police chief Toeng Bunthoeun denied that police had blocked the protesters.

“There were no roadblocks to prevent the people early this morning in my commune,” he said.

Provincial and district police could not be reached for comment.

The brothers on trial are Suon Seiha, 30, Suon Hongly, 44, and Suon Hou, 40, who was not present at the court Wednesday.

Mr. Seiha said the case was meant to intimidate villagers.

“As long as we’re still living, we will not give up hope and will keep demanding the rights to our farmland,” he said.

Court officials could not be reached. Mr. Seiha said a verdict was set to be handed down on October 13.

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