Court suspends remaining 19 months of jail time
Siem Reap Provincial Court on Friday convicted nine villagers for being members of an illegal armed force and sentenced them each to three years in prison, suspending all but the 17 months they have all already served in prison, the presiding judge said.
The men had allegedly carried axes and other weapons in a clash with authorities back in March 2009 over a land dispute in Chi Kreng district’s Chi Kreng commune. In that clash authorities allegedly fired weapons and injured four villagers, though no shooters were ever arrested, a point that continued to draw criticism from rights groups Friday.
The nine villagers were originally charged with attempted murder in the case but the charge was changed to membership to an illegal armed force under Article 36 of the UNTAC code, which deals with organized crime. The charge carries a minimum three-year sentence.
“We decided to change the charge on the nine suspects because we had enough evidence in the verdict’s statements,” said Presiding Judge Chhay Kong.
“They seem calm. Maybe they can accept the verdict,” he said, adding that all nine men were fined around $120.
The violent clash came after villagers accused authorities of illegally plotting to sell 475 hectares of their land.
The court yesterday convicted two of men on contempt and illegal confinement charges for their role in allegedly locking the courthouse doors during a Jan 2009 protest over the same land dispute.
The trials of all the men were delayed several times during the last month.
The local rights group Adhoc on Friday issued a statement criticizing the verdict and sentences, which it said had wrongly punished the victims of a land dispute.
“Adhoc’s observations have found injustice happened to Chi Kreng Villagers again and again since 2008 until the present,” the statement said.
“We express our regret to the Siem Reap Provincial Court that decided to jail nine people in a land dispute on criminal charges…,” the statement continued.
Local Adhoc coordinator Mao Yin said the fact that villagers were punished but not those who fired guns demonstrates the impunity that exists within the court system.
“I think that impunity occurred only toward the powerful people and high-ranking persons,” he said, adding that in general “Poor people get imprisoned and rich people get bail.”
Am Sam Ath, senior monitor for the rights group Licadho, also criticized the authorities’ treatment of the case.
“Even now, the authorities still have not found and arrested the perpetrators,” he said. “Injustice always happens on villagers but perpetrators still have impunity.”
The Adhoc statement also accused police, monks and officials from the Ministry of Cult and Religion, of attempting to defrock a monk from Chi Kreng who joined villagers to visit the court on Friday.
“We request the court system to please stop trying to arrest and threaten Monk Loun Sovath,” the statement said, calling the incident a rights violation.
The Venerable Sovath had been asked by religious authorities not to attend the trial claiming his presence would go against the grain of Buddhist values.
He said by telephone yesterday that about 200 villagers had intervened to prevent his arrest.
“I think that I did not do any wrong against the Buddhist religion, because I just wanted to know the verdict,” he said.
Provincial cults and religion department director Vann Bunna said that authorities had attempted to defrock the monk because the he was violating his precepts as a monk.
“If the monk commit this act again, the provincial Buddhist authority will defrock him,” he said.
Provincial prosecutor Sok Keobandith declined to comment on the case Friday, as he was busy in a meeting.