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Chi Kraeng villagers get day in court

SIEM REAP PROVINCE
SIEM Reap provincial court has begun questioning villagers arrested on accusations of stealing rice from disputed farmland last year, in the latest development stemming from a 25-year-old land dispute in Chi Kraeng commune.

Chin Lyda, a lawyer provided by rights group Licadho, said he accompanied three of the jailed villagers to court on Tuesday. “We will bring three more villagers to court on Wednesday, and three on Thursday,” he said.

“I do not think they should turn this case into a criminal case, because it remains unclear who the actual owners of the disputed land are.”

The land dispute stretches back to 1986, when one large village was divided equally between Chi Kraeng and Anlong Samnor communes, leaving an unspecified number of hectares of farmland in dispute. The fight over the land became heated a few years ago when two businessmen came forward, each claiming they had documents proving their ownership of the land.

In January 2009, the provincial court ruled that all of the disputed land belonged to Anlong Samnor, triggering conflicts between villagers from the two communes. On March 18, military police opened fire on Chi Kraeng villagers agitating for the right to farm the disputed land, injuring four of them. No military police officers have faced charges over the incident.

A total of 11 villagers were subsequently arrested after they were caught harvesting rice from the disputed land on March 22.

Ten Kumheap, the wife of jailed villager Chheng Savoeun, said officials questioned her husband about the alleged “rice robbery” on Tuesday. She contended that the rice in question was planted by the villagers themselves.

“No villagers stole any rice,” she said. “We planted the rice, so we harvested the rice.”

Lawyer Chin Lyda added that as long as the villagers languished in prison, the protracted dispute would be “difficult to settle”.

Investigating Judge Sok Leang was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

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