THREE villagers locked in a battle with an NGO in Preah Vihear province accused of human rights violations have asked the provincial court to delay their scheduled interrogation, saying they fear arrest if they appear at the hearing.
The villagers – 45-year-old Sath Savoeun, 41-year-old Kim Sophal and 62-year-old Srey Sophan, all of Preah Vihear’s Choam Khsan district – have been summoned to appear at the court Thursday on suspicion of incitement, fraud and disinformation, according to copies of summonses signed last week by investigating judge Sor Savuth.
Kim Sophal said yesterday, however, that the villagers planned to remain in Phnom Penh, where they joined a Monday press conference to discuss their case, for the time being.
“We will not go to court this week because we are afraid of arrest,” Kim Sophal said. “We need a lawyer first.”
The villagers could face three years in prison if convicted of the charges, said Chan Soveth, senior investigator for local rights group Adhoc. Adhoc wrote to the court yesterday to request that the hearing be rescheduled so that Adhoc lawyer Long Lun, currently busy with a case in Ratanakkiri province, could represent the villagers, he said.
The three villagers are part of a group in Choam Khsan district’s Kantout commune who say they have been terrorised by staff members from the Drugs and AIDS Research and Prevention Organisation, an NGO run by a one-star general. Rights groups say employees of the NGO, which received a 556-hectare social land concession in Choam Ksan district in 2007, have issued threats, forced dozens of families off their land and even raped local residents.
Investigating judge Sor Savuth said yesterday that he would not delay tomorrow’s hearing. The villagers could face arrest if they do not comply with the summons.
“This is a misdemeanour case, so they do not need a lawyer to come along,” Sor Savuth said.
Although community representatives have collected thumbprints from Choam Khsan residents accusing DARPO of human rights abuses, Sor Savuth said the Preah Vihear provincial court had found no evidence to support these claims.
“Based on our investigation, the villagers live under local authority,” Sor Savuth said. “There are no rapes and no violence – the NGO has helped find funding for villagers and has built wells, schools and a market.”
Adhoc filed complaints last week with the Ministries of Interior, Justice, Defence and Land Management calling for their intervention in the case.
DARPO Director Pen Loem, who also serves as an adviser to Senate President Chea Sim, could not be reached for comment yesterday, though he said Monday that the aggrieved villagers represented only a small percentage of local residents. He denied having filed the complaint against the three representatives, and said that it had been filed by other Choam Khsan residents who had benefited from his organisation’s presence.