Eight people are in detention, and one elderly woman is in the hospital after Sihanoukville police carried out warrants for the arrests of squatters who refused to leave land belonging to powerful business tycoon Teng Bunma, officials said Thursday.
Police made the arrests Tuesday and Wednesday, following a warrant from the Sihanoukville Municipal Court that sought the arrests of 15 other people, who all have refused to leave a 4-hectare plot of land scheduled to be developed by Teng Bunma’s Thai Boon Rong Group, police and court officials said.
The plot of land is just a small part of a larger area scheduled for development, authorities said.
One 60-year-old woman, Suy Kim Sy, was taken to the hospital after fainting during her arrest, human rights officials and witnesses said.
She was still there Thursday afternoon, said Lor Chunthy, coordinator for Legal Aid of Cambodia, which is following the arrests.
The warrants were issued for a total of 24 family representatives, the last of a group of more than 90 families who settled on the land in the 1980s, but who had no titles for the land, officials said.
About 70 families finally settled with the local authorities and moved elsewhere. Twenty-four families stayed on the land, and are accused by police of assaulting construction workers and destroying private property, a criminal offense that carries a penalty of between two months and three years in jail under Untac law.
“The judge said we have to arrest all of them,” said Sihanoukville court prosecutor Mam Mit. “We are following the warrant from the investigating judge.”
Sihanoukville Police Chief Daung Saroeun confirmed the arrests, but referred other questions to court officials.
“They violated the land belonging to another person. I’ve followed the warrant,” he said.
Human rights groups in Sihanoukville are following the case, but they must still interview each of the people to determine if any human rights abuses have taken place
Sihanoukville officials from Adhoc, Licadho, Legal Aid of Cambodia and other human rights and legal experts met Wednesday to discuss ways to keep the protesters out of jail.
“We cannot ask [the courts] to release the arrested persons, or to stop the arrests, because they have a warrant,” said Khem Sakhen, Licadho coordinator in Sihanoukville. “We suggested the suspension of arrests of any more people, and they said they would consider it.”
By law, each of those arrested could be in detention for up to six months while their cases are being investigated. However, Cambodian courts are often criticized for detaining suspects longer than six months if the investigation takes longer.
The arrests themselves signify no rights abuses, Lor Chunthy said. “We cannot say if this is a human rights violation or not, because the prosecution has enough documents to charge them for arrest, and the people do not have any title to say the land belongs to them.”
Landlessness is one of the country’s largest problems, after decades of civil war destroyed records of land ownership. Many poor families don’t have titles to the land they occupy, a problem that will be addressed in the implementation of a October 2001 land law.
Families had petitioned to stay on the land “many times,” including thumb-printed protests sent to the Sihanoukville authorities, the National Assembly and the Senate, one protester said.
Land protesters were waiting for the courts to hear all of their cases before they would move, but the police began the arrests before that could happen, the man said, refusing to be identified for fear of more trouble from Sihanoukville authorities.