Twelve Questioned Over Pheapimex Land dispute

Pursat Provincial Court yesterday questioned 12 villagers embroiled in a land dispute with the company Pheapimex, which the villagers claim is clearing community forest to make way for acacia and cassava plantations.

Pursat deputy prosecutor Pong Chan Yutheara, who questioned 12 villagers yesterday, could not be reached for comment, but acting prosecutor You Yinny said the court would continue its investigation.

“The court has finished questioning the villagers and also continues investigating the case,” Mr Yinny said.

Kuch Veng, one of the 12 questioned, said he was asked about his alleged involvement in organizing protests, destroying Pheapimex company property and preventing local authorities from performing their work.

Mr Veng said he and his 11 neighbors were summoned by former court prosecutor Tob Chan Sereivuth, who is now in detention on corruption charges.

“I asked the court to drop charges against me and other villagers because we did nothing wrong,” Mr Veng said.

While more than 100 villagers converged on Pursat Provincial Court yesterday, Meng Bunroeun, another summoned villager, said police prevented more than 60 villagers from Krakor district’s Chhoeu Tom commune from taking two trucks to the court.

But Krakor district police chief Len Song denied the allegation.

“We only checked the trucks to see if the drivers had paid road tax,” Mr Song said.

Chheng Sophors, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, said he believed the court cases were an attempt to dissuade protests.

“Wherever villagers protest against companies encroaching on their farmland, the companies usually sue them in a bid to scare them,” he said.

Chea Hey, one of the two lawyers representing Pheapimex, said the company had not encroached onto villagers’ land. He said villagers should thank the company for creating employment.

“The company’s goal is to offer them jobs and development in their areas,” Mr Hey said.

Pheapimex has since 1997 maintained a sprawling 316,000-hectare economic land concession covering parts of Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces that is more than 31 times larger than a legal size limit established in 2005.

       (Additional reporting by Phann Ana)

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