A long-running land dispute between a Phnom Penh family and a powerful tycoon seemingly came to a far-from-amicable end yesterday, as the father grudgingly accepted a compensation offer in the hope that it would secure his daughter’s release from prison.
Sixty-year-old Ly Srea Kheng, who has been holding out for $200,000 in compensation for his plot of land in the capital’s Tuol Kork district, said he had accepted an offer from Khun Sear Import Export Company of $160,000.
The family has been embroiled in a bitter dispute with the company, which is owned by businessman Khun Sear, since 2010, when the municipality sold him land that the family claims to have occupied for 35 years.
“I have decided to accept the compensation, but I’m not happy,” he said. “It’s not a suitable deal for us, but it’s for my daughter release.”
News of the deal emerged during a hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, where the family was being tried on charges, based on accusations made by Sear, of “using violence” against a legal property owner in 2013.
While all four members of the family have been charged, just 23-year-old Ly Seav Minh, the sole breadwinner, has been held in pre-trial detention.
As the trial opened yesterday, the family’s lawyer, Chuong Choungy, asked for the case to be postponed until a settlement was formally reached.
“The plaintiff and defendant are negotiating with each other. If they can reach a settlement, the plaintiff will withdraw the complaint,” he told judge Svay Tonh.
Tonh agreed to the request and the trial was postponed, with no date scheduled for further hearings.
Srea Kheng said his daughter, who returned to prison after yesterday’s hearing, had been “held hostage” to force the family to reach a deal on the company’s terms.
“We are losing because the laws are based only on … the rich. We are poor. We have no power, so we are like rubbish,” he said.
Srea Kheng and his family have accused the company of a campaign of intimidation, including throwing snakes into their home, poisoning their pets and hiring thugs to attack them.
Six other families originally involved in the dispute have accepted compensation and moved away.
Nan Ony, a legal officer with the Housing Rights Task Force, said the compensation offered to Srea Kheng was more than any other family had received.
But, he said, it doesn’t come close to the true value of the land.
Ony agreed that Seav Minh had been detained to put pressure on the family to reach a deal with the company. Legally speaking, he added, when a settlement is reached in other countries, “the criminal case still goes on. But in Cambodia they use a different way to solve the case.”
Company representatives could not be reached.
Following yesterday’s hearing, Seav Minh said she was content to stay in detention if her father changed his mind about the deal.
“If the court truly finds justice, I will be freed” anyway, she said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY