An SRP commune chief in Ratanakkiri province claimed Friday that villagers involved in a land dispute with Keat Kolney, the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, were paid money ahead of making crucial statements in court about the controversial case.
Sev Nhang, chief of Pate commune in O’Yadaw district, said that 39 villagers were each paid $12.50 ahead of making recent court statements where they claimed they willingly sold their land to Keat Kolney.
Sev Nhang said the villagers were given “50,000 riel,” and other inducements, by a former village chief who helped facilitate the original land deal for Keat Kolney.
“The villagers told me that the former village chief taught them what to say [in court],” Sev Nhang claimed by telephone.
“They were given food to eat, cars to ride back and forth to the court to talk about the land sale agreement and to recognize it,” he added.
On July 24, 42 villagers told the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court that they were not tricked into selling 450 hectares of land to Keat Kolney and that they had signed over the land willingly.
Those statements contradict claims made by 12 other villagers in lawsuits filed in January, which charge that they were tricked and pressured out of the land in Kong Yu village. The villager claim they only agreed to give up 50 hectares, and they believed it was being given to disabled soldiers on behalf of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Keat Kolney has built a rubber plantation on the disputed land.
Court Prosecutor Mey Sokhan said he was too busy to discuss the latest claims of bribery, but court clerk Prak Soeun denied that any money was paid to the villagers. Prak Soeun, however, confirmed that Kong Yu’s former village chief, Puch Svanh, accompanied the villagers while they made their statements. “The villagers came to be questioned without being forced,” he added.
Puch Svanh could not be contacted for comment.
Keat Kolney’s lawyer, Chhe Vibol, said the villagers have already made their statements.
“The court procedure requires witnesses to swear an oath before answering questions,” Chhe Vibol said. “I believe that they have already answered correctly,” he said.
Huon Chundy, program manager of the Community Legal Education Center, which is representing some of the villagers in the dispute, said the court must investigate the cash payments claim.
“This is not the correct procedure of the court,” he said.