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Land dispute rulings near

The government body charged with resolving land conflicts has been reformed and will

soon rule on the backlog of land disputes that affect around 200,000 citizens. The

Cadastral Commission could start handing down judgments by the end of this month,

said George Cooper, a consultant with Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC).

However, officials at the Ministry of Land Management said they were awaiting the

World Bank's approval for the necessary funding, which could take several weeks or

even months.

"We're really close to getting underway," said Cooper. "Almost all

of the training that needed to be done is done. We're down to final steps. They are

big ones, but the preparation is there."

The Commission has long been criticized for suffering from the same problems of corruption

and ineptness that it was designed to help citizens bypass in the weak court system.

It was established under the 2001 Land Law, and replaced an ineffective village committee

system signed into being by Prime Minister Hun Sen in 1999.

The new Commission operates at the district, provincial and national level. It does

not have authority to rule on disputes unless a case is brought before the National

Cadastral Commission in Phnom Penh, and is organized with cases passing from the

district to the provincial and the national level.

Officials at the district level conduct investigations into land disputes and collect

evidence. A case can then be referred to a higher commission if a high-ranking authority

is involved, there is a conflict of interest with the commission members, or the

dispute involves public land.

The Cadastral Commission has operated in an impromptu fashion, and some say in an

unjust manner, for the past year. The official launch is an effort to rein in the

system and fulfill its mission of mediating fairly on land disputes. Its goal was

complicated by a lack of trained staff, politically partisan appointees at the lower

level, and widespread confusion about its legal jurisdiction.

But now, said Cooper, after months spent training hundreds of officials, and with

the bureaucratic mechanisms in place, the public and NGOs can expect the Commission

to drop heavy-handed tactics and give equal hearings to the poor and powerful alike.

"The hope is that much more transparency is built into the process," said

Cooper. "A lot of effort, money and expertise have been put into this project.

We're hoping it will make an important difference."

NGOs working on land disputes have long battled government officials and the courts

to ensure impartial rulings on land cases.

"In the past, most poor people always lost their land," said Latt Ky, land

issues specialist with Adhoc, a human rights NGO. He said the commissions did not

rule fairly even after they were established.

"Until now, I can say that there's been no progress at all," he said.

Adhoc, which only takes on land cases that pit the poor against the powerful, has

had no trouble finding cases. Between November 2002 and April, the NGO investigated

84 disputes involving more than 2,000 poor families.

The NGO said this number reflected the scarcity of the organization's resources rather

than the need. Only eight cases have been resolved, while 17 were passed on to the

courts. The rest are being handled by lower-ranking commissions, provincial governors

or commune authorities.

But the problem is far bigger than that. Cooper cited statistics from the Ministry

of Justice which showed the country's courts dealt with 1,310 land disputes in 2001

alone.

Land cases comprise the most common type of civil case filed at the Court of Appeal,

accounting for about half the total, and have already surpassed its capacity to deal

with them. Cooper estimated that, combined with violent crimes and sales and ownership

issues connected with land disputes, land issues were responsible for more cases

in the courts than any other.

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