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Villagers freed in SR land dispute

Siem Reap Province

SIEM Reap provincial court on Thursday released 14 Banteay Srei district villagers who earlier this week were ordered to serve pretrial detention after being charged with the destruction of trees on state land, an investigating judge said Thursday.

The villagers had been among a group of 32 who were arrested Monday after officials accused them of clearing land that is also claimed by Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers.

Investigating Judge Hok Pov said that no trial date had been set in the case. “I order [authorities] to release them on bail because I think they will not create any hurdles for our investigation,” he said.

The arrests had been swiftly condemned by rights groups, which said the case had offered evidence of two worrying trends: an increase in arrests related to land disputes, and the use of military personnel to resolve them. Military police had carried out the arrests.

The ongoing row in Banteay Srei concerns 150 hectares of land in Phnom Kulen National Park, and pits more than 50 families against the soldiers.

The families say that Prime Minister Hun Sen granted them the disputed land, located in Siem Reap’s Tbeng commune, in 2006.

But local officials say the villagers are already living on the land they were awarded, and that the area in question is owned by the state.

Kao Sophy, the wife of one of the 14 villagers, said she was relieved that her husband had been released. “I am so happy when I learned this information. I hope we can return to our homes,” she said.

Suos Narin, a provincial investigator for Adhoc, also applauded the release of the villagers, and said he hoped the conflict would soon be resolved. Neither Siem Reap provincial officials nor Banteay Srei district officials could be reached for comment on Thursday.

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