Fortytwo villagers have told Ratanakkiri Provincial Court that they were not tricked into selling 450 hectares of disputed land to Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister Keat Kolney, court officials said July 24.
Provincial Prosecutor Mey Sokhan said the 42 residents of O’Yadaw district’s Kong Yu village told the court they thumb-printed documents signing over their territory to Keat Kolney, who is married to Ministry of Land Management Secretary of State Chhan Saphan, willingly and with full knowledge of the deal.
This new testimony contradicts claims made by 12 Jarai ethnic minority villagers in two January lawsuits, which charge that they were tricked out of the land to make room for a rubber plantation owned by Keat Kolney. The villagers alleged that they were pressured to thumbprint blank documents, sometimes while drunk, and thought they were only signing away 50 hectares of land for disabled soldiers affiliated with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Mey Sokhan added that he is also working on a separate suit Keat Kolney filed in Ratanakkiri Provincial Court, accusing “outsiders” of inciting the villagers to make claims against her. He declined to elaborate.
His clerk, Prak Soeun, said July 24 that the interviews with the villagers were part of the court’s investigation of a June 20 lawsuit Keat Kolney filed against six of the 12 plaintiffs, whom she is accusing of defamation and fraud.
The court, Prak Soeun added, began questioning the villagers about the 2004 land-transfer deal on July 4 and plans to speak with 100 locals in total.
“All the villagers answered that they have really sold the land to Lok Chumteav [Keat Kolney],” he said. “They said that they thumb-printed to accept $20,000 for 450 hectares of land…. Each family received $400.”
Huon Chundy, a program manager at the Community Legal Education Center, which is helping represent the 12 villagers, declined comment in detail, saying CLEC attorneys would have to investigate further what was going on in the village.
Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said that regardless of the conflicting statements made by villagers, the land could not be sold because it is public state land. The 2001 Land Law states that forests are state public land and cannot be sold.
“It is state land and both sellers and buyers are wrong,” Pen Bonnar said.
He added that if the court decides to turn over the land to any party, Adhoc would request that it be returned to the state.
“The loser is the state in the end,” he said. “It is contrary to the Land Law that state-owned land be planted with rubber trees,” he added.
Court clerk Prak Soeun said he did not know whether the land was state-owned or not.
Keat Kolney’s lawyer, Chhe Vibol, said that his client had not planted rubber trees on state forest land, adding that when his client bought the land, the Jarai villagers told her it belonged to them.
“If it were state land, no one would dare to sell it,” he added.