So far this year, a total of 146 villagers nationwide have been charged with criminal offenses related to land disputes with the rich and powerful, local rights group Adhoc announced Friday.
Of that total, the country’s municipal and provincial courts have unfairly detained 55 people, while the remaining 91 are currently on the run from authorities, Adhoc’s President Thun Saray said in a statement.
There was a notable surge in the courts’ pursuing of charges against villagers over land disputes following the national election in July, which was won by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s long-ruling CPP, said Thun Saray, who described the judiciary’s actions as “systematic.”
“The arrests were not just at one place but in many provinces and municipalities,” Thun Saray said.
“The court system was used by the rich and the powerful in order to press villagers,” he said, noting that villagers were in many cases granted their freedom by the same courts if they agreed to leave disputed land.
“The usage of the courts is systematic,” he said.
Five villagers, whose relatives were jailed in separate land disputes in Battambang, Ratanakkiri, Kratie, Kompong Speu and Kompong Chhnang provinces, flanked Thun Saray during the news conference.
“When villagers agree to thumbprint [documents] agreeing to give up their land, they will be released,” said Thun Saray, who accused the courts of rarely ever ruling in favor of the poor.
A petition signed by thousands seeking an end to the jailing of villagers involved in land disputes will be submitted to King Norodom Sihamoni and Hun Sen, he added.
Asked to comment on the alleged bias of the courts toward the rich in land disputes, So Chanthy, chief inspector of the Justice Ministry’s inspection secretariat, which oversees courts nationwide, said that it was normal for land disputes to reach the courts.
“We are in a democratic country, so we use the legal means,” he said.
However, Interior Ministry Secretary of State and a member of the land dispute authority, Nuth Sa An, agreed on Friday that the courts had been used to pressure poor villagers.
“There were some old cases that I intervened for the release [of villagers],” Nuth Sa An said.
Nevertheless, those who incite protests over land disputes and cause the destruction of property should be jailed, he added.