Five of the eight villagers arrested during a bloody crackdown last month on what the government alleged was a secessionist movement in Kratie province are out on bail.
A 14-year-old girl was shot dead when security forces fired automatic weapons on residents of Pro Ma village in Chhlong district’s Kampong Damrei village in an operation the villagers allege was actually a forced eviction.
Chuk Nguon, an investigating judge at Kratie Provincial court, said five men, Hang Phal, Sa Roeun Rom, Pum Vannak, Heng Thoeun and Mao Veasna, were released on May 31 because their alleged offences were not serious.
“The five villagers did not mastermind provoking an illegal riot; they were forced by the ringleaders of Bun Ratha to become members,” he said.
Bun Ratha is the alleged leader of Democratic Alliance, which authorities have accused of trying to create an autonomous zone. Bun Ratha has repeatedly argued he was merely helping villagers file for land titles.
Chuk Nguon said the other men arrested – Touch Riem, Kan Sovann and Heng Thoeun – remained in custody, charged with serious offences such as provoking a riot against public authorities and cheating.
Chan Soveth, a senior investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said the bail decision had come as a shock and that not even the men’s defence lawyer had been informed.
“We do not know whether they [those released on bail] were pressured and threatened or forced to make agreements for their release, and so far we are not aware where they are hiding,” he said.
Hok Phalla, a lawyer from Adhoc representing the men, confirmed the release and that he had posted the bail for his clients because they were not accused of a serious crime.
A combined force of about 1,000 police, military police and soldiers assisted by a helicopter stormed Pro Ma village on May 16, fired at villages with AK-47’s and evicted about 200 families from the area.
The villagers have a land dispute with the firm Casotim, which has a 15,000-hectare economic land concession about 15 kilometres away and a dormant, 124,000-hectare logging concession that includes Pro Ma village.
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at firstname.lastname@example.org