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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Land dispute arrests down in 2008, but still a problem, Adhoc says

Land dispute arrests down in 2008, but still a problem, Adhoc says

PROBLEM PROVINCE

Land-grabbing is a particular problem for ethnic minority communities in the northeast. Since 2004, more than 3,000 hectares of land have been seized in Ratanakkiri province, where the majority of people belong to ethnic hill tribes.

Arrests are still being used to combat land protests, claim rights

groups, but local courts say they are only implementing the law

ARRESTS stemming from land disputes are down in 2008 compared with last year, but the number of people detained on charges of stealing or vandalising contested land remains a concern, say human rights monitors.

Ouch Leng, a land program officer at the rights group Adhoc, said that 117 people were arrested between January and October, 37 of whom remain in prison.

A further 300 are on the run from police as a result of unresolved disputes over valuable rural property.

"People usually protest against the rich and powerful for grabbing their land," said Ouch Leng.

THE COURT NEVER ARRESTS RICH MEN IN THEIR DISPUTES WITH SIMPLE PEOPLE.

"In some land disputes, villagers have been accused of stealing land, violating other people's property, committing violence and attempting to kill, so the courts have detained them in custody."

Land grabs endemic

With large hikes in the price of land since 2004, land-grabbing has become  increasingly common in many parts of the country, pitting local villagers against large agricultural firms and well-connected figures.

"Villagers are always the ones who lose and are detained in prisons when they have disputes with powerful people. The court never arrests rich men and powerful people in their disputes with simple people," Ouch Leng said.

However, he added that the number of arrests and detentions resulting from land disputes was down from the same period last year, a change he puts down to Prime Minister Hun Sen's July 2008 intervention to halt the imprisonment of people involved in land dispute cases. Last year, around 130 people were jailed on charges arising from land disputes.

Ya Narin, director of the Ratanakkiri provincial court, denied accusations the courts had been used to break up village protests, saying officials followed the law and detained only those who have committed crimes.

"We have just followed the law. We don't detain innocent people," he said. "How can they say that courts arrest and detain only simple people? We are putting the law into practice."

Anyone committing crimes will be arrested, said Prey Veng provincial court prosecutor Yam Yet.

"If anyone destroys another person's property and cuts trees on forested land, they will face detention because what they did is wrong," he added.

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