Ratanakkiri Provincial Court has summoned five villagers embroiled in a bitter land dispute with Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister Keat Kolney to further negotiations as they failed for the fourth day on Friday to meet with Keat Kolney’s husband at the Ministry of Land Management.
Keat Kolney’s lawyer Chhe Vibol said that Investigating Judge An Samnang has issued summonses for the Jarai minority villagers, who have been in Phnom Penh for nearly a week trying in vain to meet with her husband, land management Secretary of State Chhan Saphan.
Chhe Vibol said the villagers from O’Yadaw district have been told to appear at the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court on June 21.
An Samnang did not answer repeated call to his mobile phone to comment on the case, which involves some 450 hectares of O’Yadaw district land that the villagers claim they were coerced and tricked out of to make way for a rubber plantation owned by Keat Kolney. Chhe Vibol and Keat Kolney deny the allegations and claim they bought the communal minority land legally.
Ny Chandy, a Legal Aid of Cambodia lawyer representing the villagers, said the summonses appeared to be directed at removing the villagers from Phnom Penh, where they are demanding to meet Chhan Saphan at the Ministry of Land Management.
Ny Chandy said he requested a postponement of the negotiations but An Samnang had refused.
“This seems to be done too fast,” Ny Chandy said. “It means they are pulling the villagers from Phnom Penh,” he said.
Chhe Vibol denied that his well-connected client could have had any influence on the timing of the court-ordered negotiations in Banlung.
“I don’t think like Mr Ny Chandy,” he said. “The court might think it has been a long time since the last negotiations,” he added.
Visiting the Land Management Ministry for the fourth time on Friday morning the five villagers were told that Chhan Saphan was still not in his office.
The ministry’s director of administration Nun Pheany emerged from another office shouting at the villagers to drop their lawsuit, so that the National Cadastral Commission could investigate, and that they should go to Chhan Saphan’s house if they want to talk to him.
“The husband doesn’t interfere in the business [of his wife], the name of Chhan Saphan is not involved,” she said.
Eang Sopheak, a lawyer for the Cambodian Legal Education Center, said the villagers were very upset by the hostile response at the ministry, but they would not be deterred from their legal battle to get their land back.
“The lawsuit will not be withdrawn,” he said.