More than two dozen villagers scuffled with military police inside the Takeo Provincial Court compound yesterday in a vain effort to prevent authorities from detaining a fellow villager who was in jail after being accused of so-called disinformation by local Muslim leaders.
A total of six people, including journalists and human rights workers, have been accused under the criminal charge of spreading disinformation concerning three leaders of an ethnic Cham mosque in the province’s Borei Cholsar district.
Villager Ny San, 57, yesterday became the first of the six to be questioned by the court in the case, which revolves around accusations by residents of Kompong Yol village that the mosque leaders had mishandled donated funds.
Takeo Court Director Tith Sothy said by telephone that Mr San was charged with disinformation after being questioned. The accused was also charged with wrongful damage of property, Judge Sothy said, adding that the man was then detained ahead of trial. The judge would not elaborate on the alleged offenses committed by Mr San.
Judge Sothy added that today he would question another villager as well as Radio Free Asia reporter Sok Serey over the same allegations of disinformation.
About 40 villagers turned up at the courthouse yesterday to support Mr San, fearing he would be detained after the questioning, rights workers said by telephone from Takeo.
After hours of questioning, five military police officers escorted Mr San out of the office of Judge Sothy, prompting the villagers to move forward to free Mr San, which descended into tussles with the officers, said Chhim Savuth, an investigator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“Five military police officers with two rifles escorted [Mr San] out after the questioning. After the judge’s detention decision, villagers surrounded them,” Mr Savuth said.
After a two-hour standoff between the villagers and the military police inside the court compound, the armed officers eventually managed to get Mr San into a waiting car and drove him to prison, said Chheng Sophors, an investigator with rights group Licadho.
Mr Sophors said that the case dated back to 2007, when about 206 families in Kompong Yol village had thumbprinted a petition demanding a new election for their local Islamic representatives.
The villagers suspected a committee of three people charged with managing the mosque’s funds—Sok Sen, Man Pov, and the imam, Ri Math—of mishandling 10 million riel (about $2,500) in donations.
Two villagers, Mr San and Sib Sen, had given interviews on the matter to RFA at least two times in 2008. It is over these interviews that the two men are now facing the criminal charge of disinformation, which carries a prison term for those found guilty.
Also accused of disinformation by the three local Muslim leaders are two RFA reporters—Mr Serey and Tin Zakariya—as well as two CCHR activists, Khim Sarom and Chiep Cheav, who also gave interviews to RFA.
During the break in the questioning session yesterday, Mr San claimed that provincial military police commander La Lay, who is also the chief Muslim cleric for Takeo province, is behind the lawsuits against him and others who spoke out.
“The villagers’ intention was to have an election in order to stop the dispute,” Mr San said by telephone from the court. “Without an election, people will not trust and will not help donate any more [funds],” he said.
He added that the wrongful damage allegation was being brought against him by Mr Math, the imam, over damage to a fence in a graveyard where he has been living since 1998.
“I am afraid,” Mr San said. “if the court was independent, I would not be afraid,” he added.
Mr Lay, the military police commander, said by telephone that he was not involved in the disinformation lawsuit.
“I just heard that the court asked five to six military police officers to protect the court,” Mr Lay said. “I am not involved, villagers filed the lawsuit themselves.”
Contact information was unavailable for the three committee members of the mosque.