Three villagers in Ratanakkiri province were on Wednesday sentenced to two years in prison after being summarily tried and convicted for land-grabbing offenses over a dispute with a civil servant from Phnom Penh, according to a court official.
Reached by telephone, provincial court Presiding Judge Chey Mealia said that Em Chan, 62; Saut Soeun, 56; and Chrek Touch, 37, were found guilty of using violence against a property owner and illegally occupying another person’s land.
“The court held the hearing today and announced the verdict after the hearing. Then we ordered that the three people be detained and sent to the provincial prison,” the judge said, declining to comment further.
The three men are leaders of a community of more than 100 families embroiled in a yearslong land dispute with Heang Socheat, the official from Phnom Penh.
Under questioning last year, the trio told the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court that they moved onto a 186-hectare plot in Bakeo district’s Keh Chung commune in 2007 with 150 other families to mine gems, and built houses on the land to no objection from authorities.
Problems developed in 2012, the men said, when the 150 families requested land titles from student volunteers deployed to the area as part of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s populist titling scheme, but were denied.
Instead, a separate group of 15 families—mostly relatives of Mr. Socheat—were issued land titles and subsequently filed complaints against the original 150.
Contacted after on Wednesday’s verdict was handed down, Am Sam Ath, a technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, which has provided legal representation for two of the three men, questioned the decision.
“I think that the court’s decision to use Article 253 of the Land Law to [convict] the three people is not right because they did not use violence against Heang Socheat,” he said, adding that the convicted men had also each been ordered to pay 3 million riel (about $750) in compensation to the plaintiffs.
According to Mr. Sam Ath, the men were charged by the court two years ago, but never arrested.
While the hearing was underway on Wednesday morning, more than 300 members of the title-less families gathered outside the courthouse to demand the release of the three.
About 100 remained in front of the courthouse following the guilty verdict with plans to camp there overnight but were removed, said Son Sak, 60, one of the protesters.
“The deputy provincial governor and the provincial police chief came to meet us but they also brought along a fire truck and around 100 armed police,” he said.
“The deputy provincial governor…told us that since we didn’t have mosquito nets and proper mats, it was risky, and that we would be bitten by mosquitoes,” he said, adding that the protesters had decided to instead spend the night at the local office of rights group Adhoc.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)