The Ratanakkiri provincial court has given the Jarai ethic minorities and Keat Kolney,
the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, until mid November to submit evidence
showing whether bribery tainted the sale of the villagers' land three years ago.
Judge On Samnang on Octber 25 gave the Community Legal Education Center, who represents
the families of Kong Yu village, and Keat Kolney, 15 days to provide evidence regarding
the August 2004 sale of 450 hectares of land.
Kolney, the wife of Chhan Saphan, secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management,
Urban Planning and Construction, bought the land from 70 families in Kong Yu and
neighboring Kong Thom in Pate commune, O'Yadao district.
Some sellers received $400, others less. CLEC says that a bribe of $90,000 was paid
to local officials to facilitate the deal.
Villagers protested several times after learning that local authorities may have
conspired with Kolney to cheat them. On January 23, 2007, villagers filed a complaint
with the Ratanakkiri provincial court demanding their land back.
Chhe Vibol, a lawyer representing Kolney, said he has submitted evidence to the court
and has witnesses ready.
"My client bought the land legally," Vibol told the Post on October 31.
"We have all the documents from all levels of authorities to prove that we are
Vibol said that his client had called Jarai villagers looking for a compromise to
end the dispute, but no solution could be found. He said about 20 villagers agreed
to be witnesses.
"There is no way to compromise," Vibol said, "Let the court do their
Sourng Sophea, the attorney at CLEC, disputes Vibol's statement, saying that Kolney
never came to discuss the land purchase with the villagers, instead using district
and commune authorities to deal with them, and telling them the government needed
the land for handicapped soldiers.
"The buyer and seller never met to talk about the price and the sale of land,"
Sophea said. "Local authorities intimidated the villagers and forced them to
thumbprint while they were drunk."
Sophea said he was preparing evidence and would submit his work to the Ratanakkiri
provincial court on November 12.
Pen Bunna, an activist in Ratanakkiri with the local human rights NGO Adhoc, has
followed the case from the beginning. He said a large part of the land in question
belongs to the state; a smaller part is land used by ethnic minorities for slash
and burn agriculture.
"I think the court should withdraw the land back as state property," Bunna
said, "To end the dispute, the court should decide no one won or lost."
Bunna said most of the land in Ratanakkiri is state land.
The 2001 land law states that indigenous community lands are protected by law, and
no one was entitled to privately sell or take the land.
Meanwhile, Vibol said Kolney has already planted rubber trees on 250 hectares.