The Ratanakkiri Provincial Court questioned two well-known human rights workers yesterday in an incitement lawsuit brought against them by a CPP commune chief, one of those questioned said.
About 200 ethnic minority Tumpuon villagers, embroiled in a land dispute with the DM Group rubber company, protested outside the courthouse calling for Adhoc’s provincial coordinator Pen Bonnar and Adhoc investigator Chhay Thy to be freed.
Mr. Bonnar and Mr. Thy—along with Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Ou Virak and Radio Free Asia journalist Sok Ratha—have been called for questioning over a 2009 complaint lodged by Kith Chem, the ruling party’s chief of Batang commune in Lumphat district, alleging they defamed him and incited a violent protest by the Tumpuon villagers over a land dispute with the DM Group.
“I told [deputy provincial prosecutor Chea Sopheak] I was in Phnom Penh, while my colleague Mr. Thy was working in Mondolkiri province, during the period of the alleged crime,” Mr. Bonnar said after being questioned.
Mr. Bonnar said he and Mr. Thy, who were each questioned separately for about 15 minutes, told Mr. Sopheak that they had visited the area in question on other occasions to train villagers on land rights and human rights.
“My colleague and I are innocent, so we asked the court to suspend the case or drop the charges,” he said, adding that he thought the lawsuit was intended as a threat against human rights workers who are involved in educating minority communities about their land rights.
“In any village and areas where the local authorities are involved with illegal land sales of state forests, there has been an increase in restrictions on us going into the villages to organize training courses on land rights,” Mr. Bonnar said.
One of the Tumpuon villagers in the long-running dispute with DM Group, Sven Vev, said that about 200 people had traveled to the provincial capital to support the two human rights workers.
“We traveled by our own motorbikes to gather in front of the courthouse,” said Mr. Vev. “Our gathering also wanted to show the court that the pair never incited us to commit crime. Instead, they trained us to understand the law and land rights.”
Chheng Sophors—a senior investigator for rights group Licadho, who observed proceedings yesterday in court—said that trying to silence human rights workers with incitement charges was becoming commonplace in Cambodia.
“Whenever outspoken villagers stage protests to demand land, [rights workers] are alleged to have incited the villagers,” he said.