About 150 villagers, enraged by the conviction and imprisonment of three of their community representatives, yesterday destroyed the gates of Ratanakkiri Provincial Court, bursting into the courtroom only to find that the three men had already been sent to jail.
The representatives – Chroeung Touch, Em Chan and Sort Soeun – were sentenced to two years in jail over a land dispute case that pitted villagers from Bakeo district’s Keh Chung commune against Ministry of Interior immigration official Heng Socheat, who the villagers claim cleared hundreds of hectares of their land.
The villagers, who had accompanied their representatives to the provincial capital of Banlung expecting them to simply testify over the case, decided to push through the gates when no one emerged from the courtroom.
“After waiting for a long time and not seeing their three representatives coming back from the courtroom, they all massed and pierced the court’s fences, pushing through and destroying it,” said Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc.
“They entered the courtroom seeking their representatives, but they could not rescue them, because they had already been sent to prison.”
The villagers then shouted that the court was corrupt and unjust, demanding it release their representatives back, Thy said.
Provincial military police intervened after about half an hour of protesting, although no villagers were arrested and no injuries were reported.
Nevertheless, the situation remained tense until about 7:30pm last night when a deal was struck between the provincial governor, the provincial court chief and the villagers, which left open the possibility of releasing the community representatives later down the line.
Keo Run, deputy chief of Ratanakkiri provincial police, said that although there was some level of confrontation, no violent acts took place yesterday.
“Villagers have now left the court area after the compromise . . . and the provincial authorities have promised to solve this problem by [today],” Keo Run said.
Run added that provincial and military police and their vehicles were still deployed around the court to prevent it from being looted or destroyed.
Mam Vanda, deputy prosecutor at Ratanakkiri Provincial Court, said the three representatives were sentenced yesterday to two years in provincial prison each based on Article 253 of the Land Law, which sanctions the use of violence against an owner of immutable property.
“After conviction, they were sent to provincial prison,” he said.
Socheat sued the community representatives in 2013, claiming they began squatting on the land only after he bought it in 2007.
But residents accused Socheat of secretly buying the land using a web of aliases and invalid titles.
Reached yesterday, Heng Socheat said the imprisonment of the three representatives was “the decision of the court”.
“All I need is my land back, that is my wish and it is justice for me.”
Additional reporting by Phak Seangly