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Farmers aquitted following jail time

Farmers aquitted following jail time

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The venerable Luon Sovath sits with residents of Boeung Kak lake during a protest outside Phnom Penh City Hall in March. He welcomed yesterday’s acquittal.

Three Siem Reap farmers who have been jailed for more than two years, after they and their neighbours protested against the loss of farmland to businessmen, will be released tomorrow following a ruling by the Court of Appeal on Friday.

The Appeal Court upheld the provincial court’s December 2009 decision to acquit them of illegally detaining two well-connected Siem Reap businessmen, Sun Sam Ol and Tann Bouki, who claimed land 175 families said they had been farming since 1981.

Cheam Leap, Sim Leap, and Khlin Eang were acquitted on Friday along with Chheng Savouen and Sinh Samley, who were released on bail in March. The five were arrested in November 2009 on charges stemming from the dispute over 475 hectares of land in Chi Kraeng district.

The release of the men follows more that two years of advocacy by their families and other residents of their tightly-knit community. They received support from a host of national and international rights groups, including Licadho, Adhoc and Human Rights Watch.

Reactions to the court’s decision have been mixed.

“My father was detained for more than two years, but he did nothing wrong. This is not justice,” Tok Ponleuk, 24, said yesterday.

He called for compensation for the men who had been detained for over two years.

The senior monk in Chi Kraeng district welcomed the decision, but said the imprisonment of the men remained “a great injustice”.

“We’re very happy they will be released, but we regret that they were jailed for so long when they did nothing wrong. The police should have arrested the perpetrators rather than the victims,” Venerable Sovath Loun said.

Adhoc investigator Ouch Leng said that releasing the three men did not change the fact that the court had been unjust.

“The government and the court take sides, leading to violations of villagers’ rights who suffer when false accusations are made against them,” he said.

Despite the high-profile nature of the case the farmers have yet to receive the new land promised by provincial authorities.

Licadho investigator Am Sam Ath noted that the cost to the community had been high. “Families suffered the loss of their fathers and their land,” he said.

Since the loss of farmland, the villages have become dependent on assistance from international aid groups, stunting and malnutrition are commonplace, and dozens of youths have been forced to migrate to other provinces and countries.

During the same period, Sovath Loun has come under increasing pressure from the Buddhist hierarchy to refrain from advocating on behalf of communities involved in land disputes.

Yesterday he called on authorities provide land to those released as well as other families who lost land. “The land is their life. If they have no land they cannot survive,” he said.

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