Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday sentenced a CPP village chief from Kompong Chhnang province to 16 months in prison after the court found her guilty of forgery for collecting signatures on a protest letter from villagers involved in a land dispute with the wife of Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem.
Presiding Judge Chhay Kong said that in addition to prison time, Toch Ly, 41, was also ordered to pay 1 million riel, or about $250, to the court and an additional 5 million riel fine, about $1,250, in compensation to the KDC International Company, which is owned by the minister’s wife, Chea Kheng.
Am Sam Ath, an investigator for local rights group Licadho, which has provided the village chief with a lawyer, said the prosecution stemmed from a dispute over 108 hectares of land in Ta Ches commune, Kompong Tralach district, which 77 local families claim is theirs. The families signed, with thumbprints, a document on July 31, 2008, calling on the minister’s wife to pay them for the property which her company had erected a fence on in 2007.
According to Mr Sam Ath, the village chief admitted to collecting the thumbprints for the letter of protest, but Ms Ly maintains that she did so only to ensure that the minister’s wife would have the right number of villagers with whom she could solve the land dispute.
On receiving the list of names, the minister’s wife lodged a lawsuit, Mr Sam Ath said.
“On February 11th, 2009, Lok Chumteav Chea Kheng took the list of thumbprints and filed the complaint to the court, accusing [Ms Ly] of faking them,” Mr Sam Ath said, adding that Mrs Kheng also requested that the Justice Ministry transfer her case from the jurisdiction of the Kompong Chhnang Provincial Court to the Phnom Penh court, claiming that she feared the village chief might have local support.
“She only sued the village chief,” Mr Sam Ath said. “The list was only for authorities to solve the dispute and they didn’t even investigate whether those people had [a rightful claim to the] land or not,” he said.
Mr Sam Ath also claimed that the village chief had not forged names, but she did acknowledge that some of the signatories among the 77 families had thumbprinted on behalf of their parents.
“Why didn’t they [the court] find out who had sold the land or not?” he asked. “Toch Ly was only leading the protest.”
Adhoc’s chief monitor Chan Soveth said that the village chief appears to have been made into an example: “This is a threat to the person who dares to stand up and protest when the poor and the rich sue each other. It is rare that the poor ever win.”
Neither Mrs Kheng nor her lawyer, Phat Pouv Seang, currently co-counsel for Khmer Rouge crimes against humanity suspect Ieng Thirith, could be reached for comment.
Ms Kheng’s representative in Kompong Chhnang province, Thay Hy, who is also a local village chief, denied that the minister’s wife had built her fence around the villagers’ land.
Mr Hy said that Mrs Kheng had bought a total of 620 hectares of land in the area back in 1996, though he could not recall how much she had paid for the property. Mr Hy also said that Mrs Kheng had already given 100 hectares of land back to villagers after they began protesting.
“She has money, she [does not need] to grab people’s land,” Mr Hy said.
“Authorities would not allow land grabbing to happen,” he added.