After more than two-and-a-half years in prison, the last of the Chi Kraeng villagers were freed yesterday, after the Appeal Court upheld their acquittal last Friday on charges stemming from one of Cambodia’s most notorious land disputes.
Three farmers – Cheam Leap, 43, Sim Leap, 61, and Khlin Eang, 58 – left Siem Reap provincial prison at about 11:30am to be greeted by relatives and friends, some of whom they had not seen since their imprisonment.
The men had been acquitted by the provincial court in December 2009 after they were accused of forcibly detaining two businessmen earlier that year over a land dispute involving 475 hectares of rice fields in Chi Kraeng district’s Angkor Chum commune. That verdict was then appealed and they remained in prison.
“Releasing me today was justice,” Cheam Leap said. “But detaining me for more than two years in prison when I was innocent was a great injustice. Power was misused by the rich to put pressure on the poor.”
Khlin Eang said that he had hoped for justice from the legal system for his family and community, but had ended up in jail instead. “It was a great injustice for those in power to use the courts to pressure me and detain me in prison when I was innocent. This damaged my reputation,” he said.
“They shot at us, and then they imprisoned us,” he added, referring to an incident in Chi Kraeng district in March 2009, when a contingent of more than 100 military, border and provincial police opened fire on farmers who were harvesting rice.
Four farmers were shot and more than 40 others detained in what rights groups described as an “unprovoked attack” by armed police on unarmed citizens. A video of the shooting, taken by a farmer with her cell phone, was widely disseminated by rights groups who called for the arrest of those who had fired on the farmers.
Farmers faced a number of charges in the aftermath, including theft of the rice they had planted. Twelve were detained by the end of the year.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator for Licadho, said that a failure by government to resolve the land dispute had led to violence, injuries, and the arrest and detainment of innocent men.