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Arrests sought in illegal sale of state land

Siem Reap Province

SIEM Reap provincial court has ordered the arrests of five Environment Ministry officials accused of selling protected state land to villagers in Oddar Meanchey province, an investigating judge said Sunday.

Two of the five officials were arrested May 4, and authorities are searching for three others, Hok Pov said.

Ruth Rong and Nuon Hey have been charged with conspiring to destroy trees in Kulen-Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, which has been officially designated a protected area.

“So far, two have been arrested, and officials are searching for the other three,” said Hok Pov, who declined to identify the other men, citing a fear that they would flee if their names became public.

The arrests were ordered after villagers from Anlong Veng district showed authorities documents indicating they had been sold state land by Environment Ministry officials, Hok Pov said.

In January, villager Chhoeut Chhong was arrested after he was accused of cutting down trees in the protected area – land he said he believed belonged to him.

Last month, 40 villagers staged a protest in front of Siem Reap provincial court demanding Chhoeut Chhong’s release, claiming they had purchased the land from government officials.

On Sunday, villagers involved in the dispute welcomed the arrests of the officials. But they also implored authorities to grant them permission to
continue living on the land.

“I appeal to Samdech Hun Sen to grant the land to us,” said Chhorm Chhoeun. “If we knew what the real situation was before, we would never have come to live on this land.”

Chhorm Chhoeun said that the officials convinced villagers to pay them US$1,000 each to lobby the government to award them 30-by-200-metre plots of land.

Despite the arrests of the officials, Hok Pov said he had no intention of releasing Chhoeut Chhong, the jailed villager, until the entire investigation is complete.

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