About 200 armed police officers and local authorities on Tuesday forcibly evicted 21 families from their homes in Preah Sihanouk province’s Stung Hav district and destroyed their houses with excavators and bulldozers.
Residents of the destroyed community and human rights workers said the eviction was illegal, as the dispute over ownership of the land was still before the courts.
In April, the provincial court ordered the 21 families to move from their smallholdings, ruling that local businessman Cheam Phen, who owns a beer company, was the rightful owner of about 350 hectares of land where the families’ homes are located.
Despite the land dispute case still before the Appeal Court, the eviction was carried out on Tuesday.
Noun Narith, provincial coordinator for local rights group Licadho, said the evictees had been offered no compensation and that their removal was illegal while the case was still before the courts.
“The verdict should not have been implemented because the Appeal Court is still working on this case,” Mr. Narith said.
Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court director Mong Monicharya said that the appeal and supreme courts still had the right to overrule the provincial court’s decision, but the eviction had gone ahead nonetheless.
“We decided at Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court that Mr. Cheam Phen won the case and we executed our verdict temporarily in compliance with the new law,” Mr. Monicharya said.
Mr. Monicharya did not stipulate what provision in the law allowed for the eviction to be carried out while the case was still in the appeal procedure.
During the violent eviction, two women and a male resident who had tried to stop authorities from destroying their homes were detained until the site was flattened. Human rights monitors were not allowed access to the site.
“We did not dare to protest against [the police] because so many of the officials were holding their guns up and security staff were holding axes and knives,” said Chab Pring, a 45-year-old man who has lived on a plot of land in Keo Phos commune with his family since 1993.
“They even loaded their guns in front of us to scare us,” Mr. Pring said, adding that after the 21 families were told to leave their houses early Tuesday morning, an excavator and a bulldozer immediately moved in to tear down their homes.
“They completely destroyed our homes,” Mr. Pring said, adding the community had been moved to some vacant land in the same district.
“We don’t even have a shelter now. We need tents, food and water. They took away everything,” he said.