Ratanakkiri Provincial Court on Tuesday accepted a complaint filed by 12 ethnic minority villagers seeking legal action against Keat Kolney, Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister, and seven others, for allegedly obtaining their land illegally in August 2004.
The Jarai minority villagers, who are represented by lawyers from the USAID-funded Community Legal Education Center, also filed a civil complaint demanding the return of 270 hectares of land in O’Yadaw district’s Pate commune.
“We request the prosecutor to take legal action against the suspects for fraud, faking private documents, bribery and the abuse of the land of indigenous people,” the 12 said in their complaint.
Those named in the complaint include Keat Kolney and former Kong Yu village chief Phoy Svagn; O’Yadaw district governor Heng Bun Phann; Im Kol and Im Sam Ol, whose positions are not given; and Pate commune councilors Roman Porng, Pov Sar and Sev Rith.
Yar Narin, the court’s director and a judge in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Supreme Court Chamber, said by telephone that he had accepted both complaints.
“We have to consider the lawsuit and we will work on it,” he said.
Keat Kolney’s representative Im Sam Ath said Monday that the allegations, made by villagers in Kong Thom and Kong Yu villages, were baseless and that the land sale was legal.
Each villager thumbprinted a document agreeing to sell their individually-managed plots of land, which means that the deal did not violate the 2001 Land Law, he said.
He also said that Keat Kolney’s land, which is now a rubber plantation, is a model for other rural land investors in Ratanakkiri province.
Contacted Tuesday, Im Sam Ath declined further comment and said Keat Kolney did not want to talk to reporters, either.
“I have said it all already,” he said.
Henry Hwang, a CLEC attorney advisor, said Im Kol and Im Sam Ol are believed to work for Keat Kolney’s Farmers Development Community organization, which is based in Phnom Penh.
The pair are named in the criminal complaint because their names appear on the sale documents as witnesses, Hwang said.
CLEC lawyers have said the 2001 Land Law forbids all private sales of collectively owned indigenous land.
The complaint lodged by the 12 Tuesday cites, in support of their allegations, Articles 38, 45, 50 and 58 of the Untac Law and Article 265 of the Land Law.
Untac’s Article 38 pertains to corruption, Article 45 relates to fraud, while Article 50 deals with forgery, and Article 58 deals with bribery. The Land Law’s Article 265 deals with infringement by government officials on the land rights of indigenous communities.
A bodyguard for Chann Sophann, Keat Kolney’s husband and secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, said Tuesday that Keat Kolney is aware that she has been named in the criminal complaint.
The bodyguard, who did not give his name, declined to comment further or provide contact details for Keat Kolney or Chann Sophann.
The villagers’ complaint delivered to the court claims that the local officials named falsely informed villagers that if they did not sell 50 hectares of their land, Prime Minister Hun Sen would take it for distribution to disabled soldiers.
After the villagers agreed to sell 50 hectares, families in Kong Yu received donations of $400 each and a sarong from Keat Kolney, though local officials did not tell them this was in exchange for their land, the villagers say in their complaints.
Rubber workers for Keat Kolney have since cleared 270 hectares of land, the complaints state.
O’Yadaw district governor Heng Bun Phann on Tuesday denied the villagers’ allegations that he had tricked them out of their land. Local officials had banned the minority villagers involved in the dispute from selling their property, but they have refused to listen, he said.
“Now the rubber trees are planted so what can we do? They sold and now they want it back, it is very unjust,” he said.
Former Kong Yu village chief Phoy Svagn also denied the villagers’ allegations against him in an interview in Ratanakkiri last week.
“We cannot undo the sale, it is wrong to do that to the buyer,” he said, adding, “It is like selling a buffalo—you cannot ask for it back.”
Sev Kem, one of the villagers who filed the complaint Tuesday, said last week that members of her community felt cheated out of their land, and that Kong Yu is now on the brink of severe economic hardship.
“They took away all of our farmland,” she said.
“[A village official] has threatened me but the rest of the village stands together. We want our land back,” she said.
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