Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday began the trial of 15 people charged with illegally clearing protected forest in Preah Vihear province and for using weapons against authorities who evicted them from the area in November 2007.
All eight of the defendants who were present at the trial Tuesday, including Preah Vihear’s former provincial deputy governor Meas Savoeun, denied the charges.
The case revolves around a community of more than 300 families that the government claims illegally encroached on state land in Choam Ksan district’s Occheuteal protected forest.
On Nov 15, 2007 violence broke out when about 200 armed police, military police, and soldiers forcefully evicted the entire community, killing two villagers and injuring five. The incident sparked condemnations from local and international rights groups.
Tuesday’s trial took an unexpected turn when the two court-appointed lawyers for Meas Savoeun refused to defend their client. Meas Savoeun also asked that the appointed lawyers be removed so that his attorneys, who had previously requested that the court delay the trial, could defend him instead.
Judge Nhean Sovann rejected Meas Savoeun’s request and ordered the two appointed lawyers to continue defending him.
“Being appointed lawyers means that you don’t have to ask the defendant’s [opinion],” Nhean Sovann told the lawyers.
Preah Vihear’s Forestry Administration Chief Pol Vannareth testified that Meas Savoeun was behind the illegal clearing of the disputed land. He also demanded that each of the eight defendants present in court and the seven being tried in absentia pay the Forestry Administration $50,000 in compensation.
The eight defendants claimed during the trial that they were unaware they were living on state-owned land and that they were not carrying weapons when authorities “attacked” them.
Defendant Mann Chanthorn, 32, whose wife was one of the villagers killed during the violent eviction, accused authorities of taking away land that was legally his.
“They burned my house and killed my wife and took my property,” he said. “I want to be free to feed my children.”
Defendant Rim Roeuy, 25, who was shot in the right thigh during the eviction, had to be helped from the court temporarily Tuesday because of muscle spasms in his injured leg.