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Arrests feared in Svay Rieng

About 200 villagers accompany five summoned for questioning in land dispute

I see people standing in front of my office, but I don’t know what they want.

A GROUP of roughly 200 villagers involved in a land dispute with a rubber company in Svay Rieng province travelled from Romeas Hek district to the provincial court on Monday to accompany five men who have been summoned to appear in a related case.

About 400 families in Romeas Hek have accused the Peam Chaing Rubber Company of threatening to seize their farmland, more than 800 hectares of which allegedly overlaps with a 3,960-hectare concession awarded to the company in 2007.

Earlier this month, some of the villagers had a dispute with company workers, and they have been accused of destroying police property and “briefly kidnapping” a company representative.

One of the villagers, Yea Yeoung, was arrested shortly after the altercation. Police in Romeas Hek district’s Tres commune have tried to arrest 14 others, all of whom – along with one other villager – have also been summoned to appear before the court on Tuesday, according to documents provided on Monday by the rights group Adhoc.

Five of those 15 were among the 200 villagers who made the trip on Monday.

Soth Sarorn, one of the five who decided to appear, said he planned to explain to the court that protesting villagers had only detained the company representative “for a short time” in order to convince the company to clear a road that had been blocked by its clearance work.

He added that the villagers travelled to the court en masse to call for the release of Yea Yeoung and to prevent further arrests in the case.

“The villagers will not go back home if the provincial court does not release Yea Yeoung,” he said. “And they will accompany me and the other four villagers to clarify at the court tomorrow. They would not let the five of us go alone. They are afraid that the authorities will arrest us and send us to jail like Yea Yeoung.”

Adhoc issued a statement on Monday also calling for the release of Yea Yeoung.

“We urge the provincial court to release the man who has already been arrested, and to stop hunting to arrest more people who have fled from their homes in fear of arrest,” the statement said.

It added that the land in question should be awarded to the villagers.

Chan Soveth, a senior investigator for Adhoc, said the other villagers whom commune police have tried to arrest had fled their homes and gone into hiding.

He urged authorities to step in and resolve the case.

“The authorities have not helped the villagers, and they have tried to ban people to speak out. If they keep doing like this, then villagers will lose more and more land,” he said.

Provincial governor Chheang Am said Monday that he had no authority to intervene in the case, and that any decisions about arrests would need to be made solely by the court.

“I don’t support the company or the villagers,” he said. “I love my villagers, but the villagers are wrong because they threatened to kill the company representative.”

Prosecutor Keo Sothea declined to comment on the case on Monday, and deputy prosecutor Ly Lon said he did not know enough about it to comment.

“I see people standing in front of my office, but I don’t know what they want or where they are from,” he said.

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