Siem Reap Province
THE rights group Licadho on Wednesday called for charges to be dropped against 14 villagers from Siem Reap’s Banteay Srei district, following a visit to a disputed 150-hectare area in Phnom Kulen National Park that they have been accused of clearing illegally.
Nou Puthyk, the group’s Siem Reap provincial coordinator, said he and other Licadho staff members had determined that the villagers were guilty at most of felling a few trees, and added that that the charges were without merit.
“We see only four or five trees have been cut at this site, so I hope that the authorities will reconsider this case,” he said.
On May 3, the 14 villagers were among a group of 32 who were detained overnight at the provincial military police station in connection with an ongoing row over the land, which is also claimed by Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers. Though 18 were released the next day, the others were charged with clearing state land and ordered to serve pretrial detention.
The operation was blasted by rights groups, who condemned the arrests and bemoaned the fact that they had been carried out by military personnel. Ouk Aun, the second deputy director of the Banteay Srei office of RCAF, said last week that 35 soldiers had assisted in the arrest.
The 14 villagers were released on bail on May 6, with Hok Pov, an investigating judge at Siem Reap provincial court, saying he did not think they would “create any hurdles for our investigation”.
In response to the request from Licadho, Hok Pov said Wednesday that he had not yet reached a decision on whether the case should be taken to trial.
“Until I finish my investigation, I cannot conclude whether I should send the case to the trial judge or drop it,” he said.
The villagers say that Prime Minister Hun Sen granted them the disputed land, located in Banteay Srei district’s Tbeng commune, in 2006. But local officials, including Tbeng commune chief Heab Tha, say the villagers are already living on the land they were awarded, and that the area in question is owned by the state.
Kao Sophy, a resident of Tapen village, said Wednesday she still plans to press her case for the land, despite the fact that the arrests were “terrifying”.
“We will demand our land because there are no trees on the other land,” she said. “All of the trees are burnt. I think only Samdech Hun Sen can solve the problem.”
But Sar Sovann, one of the villagers who faces charges, indicated on Wednesday that, after his detention last week, he was considering vacating the land.
“I think I will stop asking for that land, because I am so afraid of being detained again, though this means I will lose more than 3 hectares,” he said.
“Also, I have lost time that I need to support my family,” said Sar Sovann, who works as a motodop.
Neither Siem Reap provincial Forestry Administration director Chheang Tola nor deputy director Tea Kimsoth could be reached for comment on Wednesday.