Ratanakkiri Villagers Questioned Over Land-Grabbing Accusations

Ratanakkiri Provincial Court on Monday questioned three villagers from a group of 150 families who are accused of grabbing the land of a Phnom Penh civil servant who purchased the land in 2007.

The three men questioned said that they had moved onto the 186 hectares of land in Bakeo district to mine for gems in 2007, and started to build houses without anybody’s objection.

In 2012, student volunteers came to measure the land as part of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s land-titling project. But despite a request for the land from the 150 families, titles were officially granted to a different group of 15 families, most of them relatives of Heng Socheat, the municipal official.

Investigating Judge Luch Lao said fifteen families who had hard land titles filed a complaint in October. The 150 families without land titles stand to be evicted.

“The 15 families who stand as plaintiffs all have hard titles issued by the government, while the accused have no documents to prove ownership or residency of the land in question,” said Judge Lao.

Sauth Soeun, one of the three men who appeared in court Monday, said that the 150 families should have been granted land titles in 2012 as they had lived and worked on the land for many years.

“I told the investigating judge that we have lived and farmed on the land for at least seven years, so we did not grab the land of another person,” he said.

By law, land can be legally claimed if a family has lived on it for more than five years prior to 2001.

Contacted Tuesday, Mr. Socheat declined to give his position in the Phnom Penh municipal government, but said that he began buying land in Ratanakkiri in the 2000s, after being assigned by the government to deal with Montagnard refugees from Vietnam who had sought refuge in the province.

Mr. Socheat said he purchased the disputed land in early 2007 as a retirement plan. The 150 families gradually started to settle on his land in 2013, he said.

“Initially, there were only a few migrant families who moved onto the land sometime during the national election campaign last year,” he said.

“Then, more and more families moved onto my land, and the authorities ignored the issue because they were busy with the election campaign,” he added.

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