Siem Reap Province
THIRTY-two villagers – including three children – accused of clearing state land in Siem Reap province’s Banteay Srei district on Monday were arrested and detained overnight at the provincial military police station, and 14 “ringleaders” have since been charged and placed in pretrial detention in connection with an ongoing land row, officials said Tuesday.
The operation, carried out in connection with an ongoing row pitting more than 50 families against Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers, was swiftly condemned by rights groups, which said it offered evidence of two worrying trends: an increase in arrests stemming from such disputes, and the use of military personnel to resolve them.
Hok Pov, an investigating judge at Siem Reap provincial court, said military police and soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces arrested the 32 villagers Monday night after they refused to stop clearing a 150-hectare area of land in Phnom Kulen National Park.
He said 14 people who had been singled out as “ringleaders” were charged Tuesday with “destruction of trees in state plantation land” and placed in pretrial detention.
The remaining villagers had been released, Hok Pov said.
The villagers say that Prime Minister Hun Sen granted them the disputed land, located in Siem Reap’s Tbeng commune, in 2006.
But local officials, including Tbeng commune chief Heab Tha, say the villagers are already living on the land they were awarded, and that the area in question is owned by the state.
Prior to being placed in pretrial detention on Tuesday, villager Muth Sophal said he was confident that all those arrested would be found innocent.
“I am not afraid, because I did not do anything wrong,” he said.
Sor Sovann, who was also ordered to serve pretrial detention, said that the disputed land belongs to the villagers and that he, too, is not a criminal.
“I am a simple villager, and I am not a ringleader who cuts trees and takes land,” he said.
A report released last month by the rights group Licadho asserted that there had been a “surge” in the use of the military in land conflicts during the first quarter of this year, estimating that this occurred in at least 25 percent of all cases.
“Military soldiers should never, ever, ever, ever be implicated in civilian cases,” Licadho consultant Mathieu Pellerin said Tuesday. “It’s against the law for military soldiers to be involved in dealing with civilian cases.”
He said that the use of excessive force by officials and military police was not uncommon in land disputes in Banteay Srei district.
“During the last eight years we’ve documented abuses by the local authorities such as destruction of private property and extended campaigns of intimidation against villagers,” he said.
Ouk Aun, the second deputy director of the Banteay Srei office of RCAF, said 35 soldiers had assisted in the arrest.
He said the use of the military in land disputes was necessary in order to prevent violence on the part of villagers, who, he said, were often armed with machetes or even firearms.
“My duty is to protect the forest,” he said.
Tea Kimsoth, deputy director of the provincial Forestry Administration, stood by the decision to arrest 32 of the villagers, saying that they had cleared recently planted trees in an area that was being reforested following a fire in 2008.
“They confessed they all cut the trees, and cutting [the trees] is a crime,” he said.
But Suos Narin, provincial monitor for the rights group Adhoc, said the arrests were unnecessary.
“We don’t want the authorities to arrest them,” he said. “We want [disputes] to be solved peacefully.”
An annual report released by Adhoc in February found that despite a drop in the number of land seizures last year – Adhoc worked on 256 cases in 2009, down from 306 cases in 2008 – a greater number of civilians involved in such cases had been arrested.
A total of 235 villagers were charged with crimes related to land disputes in 2009, according to the report.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY BROOKE LEWIS