Thirty villagers were detained by police Sunday in Battambang province’s Bavel district, where a dispute over some 180 hectares of rice paddy has heated up in recent weeks, a villager representative said.
The 30 villagers—belonging to a group of 112 families who planted rice on the land earlier this year and claim to be the rightful owners—were questioned by district police after they refused to stop harvesting there, villager representative Chhoeurn Ny said.
Chhoeurn Ny said she and 22 of the villagers managed to leave the police station after convincing police to allow them to return to the rice fields to collect their clothing and equipment.
But seven others were arrested after the group fled. According to witnesses, police tied the seven with their hands behind their backs and held them at gunpoint, Chhoeurn Ny said. “The police pushed them and scolded them like robbers,” she said.
Bavel police Chief Ou Kreng confirmed the arrests, saying they were made at the request of the court prosecutor. But he declined to comment when asked whether police had tied up the villagers or used force.
The 112 families claim that the disputed land was part of about 360 hectares taken from them by former Khmer Rouge soldiers, who defected to the government in 1997. The soldiers, they said, sold the land to 46 other families.
The conflict reignited in recent weeks when the original families planned to harvest the rice they planted on the land in April.
Provincial Chief Prosecutor Yam Yeth on Sunday said he has charged the villagers with destroying the property of the 46 families. “Police can arrest them because the villagers committed crime,” he said.
Yim Meng Ly, provincial director for the rights group Adhoc, however, said the prosecutor cannot issue arrest warrants. Warrants, he said, can only be issued by an investigating judge.
“The villagers are not at fault. The police should not have arrested the villagers,” he said. Adhoc has filed a complaint with the Ministry of Interior on behalf of the 112 families.