A Ratanakkiri province judge pressing criminal charges against 10 ethnic minority villagers over a land dispute has asked authorities in the province’s Lumphat district, the area from which the suspects hail, to grant him 100 hectares of land so that he can graze his cows, the district’s governor said yesterday.
Though a local official in the district’s Batang commune said on Friday that they were offering Judge Thor Saran 70 hectares of land to have the charges dropped against the villagers, the judge’s letter of request for the land, which was delivered on Thursday, made no mention of a ruling favorable to the suspects, Lumphat District Governor Kong Srun said by telephone.
Judge Saran could not be contacted for comment on Monday.
In the letter delivered last Thursday by a commune clerk, Judge Saran allegedly proposed that he take possession of a swathe of supposedly barren land close to Sethey Mountain and to the area that is at the heart of the land dispute, and which is occupied by the developer, DM Group, said Mr Srun.
“I dared not to endorse the letter because it is above my powers and I have no right to grant him land,” Mr Srun added. “I immediately handed that letter back to the commune clerk because the letter was not sent through the proper channels,” he said.
“Therefore, there is no official approval for him to get the land,” Mr Srun continued, adding that Judge Saran’s request should have been directed to the Agriculture Ministry and the Council of Ministries, which can grant such large land concessions.
“I wish to clarify that authorities have never approved land for the judge as a gift to end a court case,” Mr Srun added. “The judge himself wrote asking for land to feed livestock and his letter does not mention that it is made with regard to the court case between the villagers and the developer.”
The letter identified Judge Saran as the deputy director of the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court.
Neither Batang Commune Chief Kith Chem nor his first deputy Nam Huot, who said on Friday that the land was meant to end the court case against the villagers, could be reached for comment yesterday.
Chhim Savuth, project coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, who is in Ratanakkiri province to investigate last month’s removal of Pen Bonnar, the former provincial coordinator of local rights group Adhoc, said it was highly unusual for a judge to personally request land in an area near to where he is adjudicating a land dispute.
“This judge is processing a court case involving a long-standing land dispute between minority villagers and a local developer,” Mr Savuth said. “The area he is seeking is close to the disputed land, too, which is why this is a strange case,” he said. “I think that it is abnormal and unusual when a senior court officer personally asks for land to feed cows.”
Mr Savuth said he had called on Judge Saran at the courthouse three times since Friday and found that he was not at his office.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said yesterday that the judge’s request was “not illegal but it is not right in terms of the principles of justice.”
According to the new code of ethics for judges, adopted by the Supreme Council of the Magistracy in 2007, “judges cannot perform business for fees or other consideration.”
“There are two things in relation to this matter. Firstly, is he asking for land as an individual? If so, it is okay because everybody can engage in business. But, as judges and court employees, it is not right because judges or court employees cannot be involved in business.”