TWO representatives of villagers embroiled in a land dispute with a sugar company owned by a Cambodian People’s Party senator were arrested Wednesday morning after being questioned at Kampong Speu provincial court, in a move that prompted hundreds of villagers to protest outside the courthouse.
Khem Vuthy, 30, and You Tho, 62, were among a group of four villagers who had been called to appear on Wednesday for questioning related to a protest held last week in which the Phnom Penh Sugar Company’s local office was burned to the ground. They arrived at the provincial court at 8:30am and were arrested at around 11:20am after being questioned by the provincial prosecutor in a session that was closed to reporters.
The company, owned by CPP senator Ly Yong Phat, has been granted a 9,000-hectare land concession in Omlaing commune. Though company and local officials have insisted that villagers living nearby will not be affected by the concession, hundreds of families have accused the company of trying to take over their farmland.
Judge Keo Mony said after the session that Khem Vuthy and You Tho had been charged with “persuading the villagers to protest, inciting them to commit arson, destroying company property and uniting together”.
The other two village representatives who had been summoned to answer to a criminal complaint filed by Phnom Penh Sugar Company representative Chhean Kimsuon received word of the arrests while en route to the courthouse and fled, villagers said.
They had been travelling with a group of 400 villagers who planned to gather outside the courthouse to demand the release of any arrested representatives.
However, the villagers – who made their way on motorbikes and about 20 mini-tractors – said their trip from Omlaing commune had been hindered by police who were stationed along the road and had set up checkpoints to slow their progress. They arrived at the courthouse at around noon, at which point Khem Vuthy and You Tho had already been arrested and transferred into custody.
About 100 police officers wielding shields and batons then prevented the villagers from entering the courthouse gates.
“If the local police had not blocked us on our way to the provincial court, maybe my two representatives would not have been arrested,” said villager Phal Vanak, who took part in the protest that began later in the afternoon, and who vowed to stay at the courthouse until the two men were released.
Em Sophal, deputy police chief of Thpong district, denied allegations that police had tried to prevent the villagers from reaching the courthouse on time.
You Ren, You Tho’s 26-year-old daughter, insisted that her father had been charged erroneously.
“My father did nothing wrong,” she said. “The reason my father came here was just to answer questions. If he had done something wrong, he would not have come to the court for questioning. He would have already run away.”
Keo Mony, the judge, said the court also planned to arrest the two villagers who had fled, along with 12 others who had been issued summonses, assuming they could be located.
“We will continue to arrest other representatives who did not appear at court this morning, and we will force them to appear in court,” he added.
Muon Kunthear, the wife of Khem Vuthy, said her husband should be released because he was not involved in burning down the sugar company’s office. “Before they decide to arrest villagers, they should find witnesses,” she added. “We have been cheated by the authorities. How can they settle our problems?”
John Coughlan, a legal adviser for the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said afterward that it appeared You Tho and Khem Vuthy had been charged with inciting the destruction of public property, adding that incitement was something of a catch-all charge commonly used against people who speak out against rights abuses.
Rights groups on Wednesday voiced concern about the charges.
In a statement, Adhoc said: “We are concerned that the provincial court decided to arrest these two representatives today, and that they are trying
to hunt down other accused villagers involved in this land dispute.”
Kampong Speu Governor Kang Heang could not be reached for comment, and Ly Yong Phat and Chhan Kimsuon declined to comment.