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Tilted playing field decried

Cambodia's court system was being overwhelmed with land disputes, most often ones pitting farmers who must thumbprint complex legal documents against companies with teams of lawyers, rights group Adhoc said yesterday.

Chan Soveth, head of monitoring at Adhoc, said these lopsided encounters were occurring in a court system that was biased against the poor.

“What’s common in these cases is the scale of the inequality in bargaining power. On the one hand, we have villagers with no lawyer, or groups scraping together cash to hire a private one, and the courts ignore them,” he said. “But when companies and their lawyers show up, the courts take immediate action in their favour.”

During the first nine months of this year, criminal charges were filed against 173 villagers involved in land disputes, compared with 134 during the same period last year, Chan Soveth said.

These figures are based only on complaints filed to Adhoc.

In that period, 49 villagers involved in land disputes were jailed in pre-trial detention, compared with 55 for all of last year, Chan Soveth said.

Ouch Leng, head of Adhoc’s land program, said the number of villagers entangled in land disputes kept rising, adding that 124 who received court summonses had simply fled.

Last year, 306 villagers were charged and nearly half fled before they could be detained, he said.

"When companies and their lawyers show up, the courts take immediate action in their favour."

“The court has become a tool for companies to use to threaten villagers. The courts charge villagers without evidence when they receive a complaint filed by a land concession company.”
Ouch Leng said the ultimate responsibility for these ongoing conflicts lay with the government.

“The government gives land to private companies but doesn't find any resolution for the people affected," he said.

In August, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned private companies that economic land concessions would be withdrawn if they failed to resolve land disputes with villagers.

When asked yesterday whether any land concessions had been taken away from companies due to a failure to resolve land disputes, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers told the Post to contact the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. A spokesman for that ministry, however, told the Post to contact the Ministry of Agriculture.

A spokesman for the agriculture ministry said such information “was not within my domain”.

Adhoc’s most recent data also found that police were quick to act when companies filed complaints. “During a dispute, local authorities are quick to provide police or soldiers at the request of private companies to threaten villagers,” Ouch Leng said. “But when villagers ask authorities for help, the police do not find any resolution for them.”

He said the most common charges against villagers included use of violence against peaceful land owners, incitement to commit successful crime and incitement to commit unsuccessful crime.

National Police spokesman Kiet Chantharith denied police acted on behalf of private companies. “Villagers are free to file complaints, but if they are gathering to organise a demonstration, we will use the demon-stration law on them,” he said.

Ministry of Justice director Sam Prachea Manith declined to comment.

Phnom Penh municipal deputy prosecutor Ek Chheng Hout said the Municipal Court always took action whenever anyone filed a complaint.

It acted on all complaints within two months, he said.

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