Siem Reap province
LOCAL rights groups have criticised Siem Reap provincial court’s conviction of nine villagers from Chi Kraeng district last week, describing the decision as “another injustice” for those involved in the long-running land dispute.
On Friday, presiding judge Chhay Kong handed each of the nine a three-year jail sentence after finding them guilty of membership in an illegal armed force, suspending the remainder of their sentences.
The villagers, originally charged with attempted intentional manslaughter, were arrested after a March 2009 altercation in which police allegedly fired on a crowd in the district’s Chi Kraeng commune, injuring four residents.
Although the nine will be allowed to go free, human rights activists have criticised the fact that no charge has been filed against any of the officers accused of being involved in the shooting.
In a statement after the verdict, the local rights group Adhoc expressed “regret” over the three-year jail sentence.
“The Chi Kraeng villagers have suffered injustice again and again since 2008,” it said.
The arrests stemmed from a land dispute dating back to 1986, when one large village was divided equally between Chi Kraeng and Anlong Samnor communes, leaving an unspecified area of farmland in dispute. In January 2009, the provincial court ruled that the land to belong to Anlong Samnor, sparking conflict between the two communes.
Ny Chakrya, Adhoc’s head investigatior, said that the verdict was “socially unjust” because police involved in the shooting hadn’t been charged.
“The people were shot and seriously injured by the authorities, and hundreds of hectares of their rice fields were confiscated,” he said.
The villagers’ defence lawyer, Ham Sunrith, said that the court failed to find enough evidence to find the villagers guilty on the original charge of attempted intentional manslaughter, and had changed the charge to suit the evidence.
Am Sam Ath, a senior monitor for the rights group Licadho, said that the original charge had made little sense.
“Police opened fire on Chi Kraeng villagers who were harvesting their rice, and caused some serious injuries,” he said. “But the court charged the villagers with an attempt to kill authorities and using illegal weapons.
“How can we say this is justice for those people? We cannot.”
Ty Soveinthal, a Siem Reap court prosecutor, declined to comment on the verdict, but said the villagers were free to file an appeal.