A lawyer for Keat Kolney, sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, made three separate proposals on Thursday to settle a civil lawsuit stemming from a land dispute with ethnic minority villagers, parties to the case and a judge said.
However, the five villagers present for the talks held at Ratanakkiri Provincial Court have not yet decided whether to accept any of the offers, Investigating Judge An Samnang said by telephone.
Twelve ethnic minority Jarai villagers from O’Yadaw district on Jan 23 lodged civil and criminal complaints against Keat Kolney and seven others, whom they accuse of tricking them out of 500 hectares of land in Pate commune in August 2004.
Keat Kolney, who is married to Chhan Sophan, secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, has denied any wrongdoing.
Keat Kolney’s lawyer Chhe Vibol said Thursday that, though trying to end the dispute, his client was not admitting to fault.
“We gave them options to consider,” he said.
The three options consist of the return of 50 of the original 500 hectares of land; or the construction of a three-room school; or the payment of money, Chhe Vibol said. “I am waiting for their answer,” he said.
An Samnang said accepting any of the offers would end all legal actions against Keat Kolney, adding that the criminal and civil proceedings were linked.
“If the civil case is finished, the criminal case is also finished.”
The five village residents present at Thursday’s talks must consider the proposals with the other seven plaintiffs in the case, An Samnang said. “The people who came didn’t have the authority to make a decision,” he added.
Chhe Vibol said Keat Kolney had legally acquired the land in question and was therefore generous in offering to return 50 hectares. “We bought all the land legally—we didn’t force them,” he said.
In court documents, villagers have complained that local officials who brokered the Keat Kolney deal falsely told them that they had to donate 50 hectares of land as Prime Minister Hun Sen wanted to distribute it to disabled soldiers.
Though agreeing to the 50 hectares, the villagers later found that several hundred hectares of their land was subsequently cleared for a rubber plantation. They also say the land taken was communal village land, which under the land law cannot be sold or traded.
Legal Aid of Cambodia attorney Ny Chandy, who represents several of the plaintiffs in the case, said that the offers made in court on Thursday were both illegal and unsatisfactory.
“Communal land cannot be sold,” he said, adding that the proposals are not proportional to the villagers’ losses. However, he added, “it is up to the community to decide.”
Ith Mathoura, a lawyer for the Community Legal Education Center, also said the proposals were unacceptable.
“With these choices, the villagers will lose a lot,” she said. “It is not giving justice to the villagers.”
Ith Mathoura added that if the Keat Kolney civil suit were settled out of court, the case against local officials named in the criminal complaint could still continue.
“If the prosecutor charges them, the criminal case cannot be negotiated,” she said.