ACOMPANY belonging to the wife of a government minister that is involved in a long-simmering land dispute in Kampong Chhnang province has filed a legal complaint accusing a local rights advocate of disinformation – another example, some observers say, of the courts being used to silence criticism in controversial land cases.
Sam Chankea, coordinator for the rights group Adhoc in Kampong Chhnang, said he is the target of a disinformation complaint filed in late May by KDC International Company, which is headed by Chea Kheng, the wife of Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem.
Sam Chankea said the complaint stems from a December 26, 2009, interview with Radio Free Asia, in which he suggested that the clearance of disputed land by the company might be against the law. “The reporter just asked me about my point of view related to the company clearing villagers’ land. I said that if this is a case of clearing land belonging to villagers, it is illegal,” he said.
In the complaint, the company denies clearing disputed land, though Sam Chankea said villagers have insisted otherwise. Sam Chankea said he suspected the complaint was an attempt to intimidate him, because he had recently urged the provincial court to investigate villagers’ claims that they had been victims of a fraudulent land deal.
The company “filed a complaint against me just to threaten me to stop working on this case”, he said. “But I am not worried about this because we are working on human rights.”
KDC representative Thai Hy confirmed that a complaint had been filed against Sam Chankea on May 25, but declined to discuss the allegations at length.
Provincial court prosecutor Penh Vibol also declined to discuss them beyond saying that he had asked police to launch an investigation.
The dispute originally involved 108 families who say they have lived for years on the land in Ta Ches commune’s Lorpeang village. The company says that it bought the land in 1996.
In 2007, the company asserted its ownership of roughly 145 hectares of disputed land, saying it had struck a deal with 105 of the families. Rights groups, however, say 64 holdout families never agreed to sign over their property.
If the disinformation claim proceeds to court, it will mark at least the sixth time KDC International Company has asked the legal system to wade into the dispute, Sam Chankea said.
Since 2002, the company has filed complaints against villagers five times, he said, including a case last year in which the village chief was convicted of forging residents’ thumbprints on a complaint letter detailing claims that villagers had never sold their land to KDC.
‘Criminalisation’ of advocacy
Rights groups say there has been a recent surge in the number of legal cases brought against community groups and advocates involved in land disputes, accusing authorities and well-connected officials of becoming increasingly fond of “intimidation” tactics.
According to Adhoc, at least 235 “human rights defenders” – a term that refers to individual protesters, community representatives or representatives of protesters – faced legal scrutiny in 2009.
Of these, 58 were incarcerated as of January this year, while 88 were on the run.
“Based on these figures, intimidation against human rights defenders in 2009 rose up noticeably, compared to 164 cases in 2008,” Adhoc’s Human Rights Situation report for last year states.
Whereas human rights advocates might once have been quietly accused of “inciting protests”, they are now much more likely to be charged with actual criminal offences, the report states.
“Intimidation is a way to psychologically frighten human rights activists and human rights workers in Cambodia so they will not be able to fulfill their missions....” the report concludes.
“In return, it will force the victims to accept the resolution offered by local authorities who collude with the powerful at the expense of the powerless.”
Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, said there has been an alarming increase in the “criminalisation” of land-dispute cases.
“It means [the courts] are not resolving the problem. They just make the problem worse,” he said.
“If you’re talking about community representatives, it is like they have been victimised twice. Their land is taken away, and at the same time they face criminal charges.”