About 100 people from 15 provinces signed a petition yesterday asking the government to release villagers detained over land disputes, as new figures revealed an increasing number of villagers and community representatives being summoned to court.
The petition, which was sent to various government ministries and institutions yesterday, asked for intervention in the arrest and detention of community representatives throughout Cambodia.
At a press conference in Phnom Penh yesterday, Chan Soveth, head of monitoring at rights group Adhoc, said the organisation had recorded that at least 124 people involved in land disputes were summoned to court in the first five months of this year, with 36 arrested – of whom 18 are still detained in prison. Recorded figures for the whole of last year showed just 128 people were summoned to court in 2010.
“Due to injustice in the courts, peoples’ living has become worse and they are afraid to protest,” Chan Soveth said.
The petition was sent to King Norodom Sihamoni, the Senate, National Assembly, Council of Ministers, Ministry of Justice and the government’s Human Rights Committee. It was also forwarded to Surya Subedi, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia, who is on a five-day visit to the Kingdom.
Hem Sokhorn, 30, Adhoc representative for Kors Kralor district in Battambang province, read out the petition yesterday, which also accused local authorities of bias towards rich and powerful people.
“Criminal charges have been made [against villagers and community representatives] on land issues without enough evidence,” she said. “It violates legal procedure.”
When complaints were filed by poor people there was either no response from the courts or a delayed response, Adhoc coordinator Ny Chakrya claimed yesterday.
“In contrast, complaints made by private companies are rapidly and smoothly taken into action by courts,” he said.
Banteay Meanchey provincial judge, Theam Chanpiseth, said yesterday that villagers were entitled to their opinions but putting pressure on courts to release representatives affected their ability to implement the law.
“[Villagers] don’t understand the law and they are not well-educated,” he said. “The more protests from them, the more impunity in the Kingdom.”
Keo Remy, spokesman for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit at the Council of Ministers, said yesterday that the government had a “clear policy” to solve land disputes through legal channels.
“Sometimes, people are wrong to grab someone else’s land and some companies are also land grabbers,” he said. “We work carefully to solve land dispute problems.”