A TOTAL of 46 villagers have been arrested in less than two years in connection with a land row in Siem Reap province pitting farmers against two businessmen and military police, the rights group Adhoc said in a statement yesterday.
The statement was issued as more than 200 villagers from Chi Kraeng commune gathered in pagodas in Siem Reap town in advance of a court hearing against nine villagers that is scheduled for today.
All nine are accused of trying to kill military police in a March 2009 altercation that allegedly saw the police open fire on a group of villagers, injuring four. No charges have been filed against any of the officers involved, but the nine villagers were charged with attempted intentional manslaughter under Article 4 of the Law on Aggravating Circumstances for Felonies after police accused them of threatening officers with machetes.
The trial began with a four-hour hearing late last month and was scheduled to resume on August 2. It was pushed back to today, however, after Judge Chhay Song became ill last week, court officials said.
Rights groups and relatives of the arrested men have described the charges against them as baseless, and have complained that calls for the punishment of the relevant military police officers have gone unheeded.
But Ouch Leng, land programme officer for Adhoc, said yesterday that the total number of arrests dating back to November 2008, when military police first moved to kick farmers off their land, was equally troubling. According to the Adhoc statement, all but 13 of the arrested villagers were questioned and released without having to spend a night in jail. There are currently 12 villagers behind bars in connection with the dispute.
“Using arrests and imprisoning people is not a good way to resolve this,” Ouch Leng said. “We would like to insist that the government intervene to free the 12 prisoners, and that officials also stop making accusations against the people and stop arresting them.”
Chea Sam Ol, 33, was among the villagers who travelled from Chi Kraeng over the weekend to Siem Reap town so he could be at the court when the trial resumed today.
His father, Klin Ieng, 58, is one of the nine men charged with attempted intentional manslaughter.
“Tonight we will stay at the pagoda, and tomorrow we will go to the provincial court in order to ask authorities to free the 12 prisoners,” Chea Sam Ol said yesterday. “We hope the court will find justice for us victims.”
Bunn Tharavith, the deputy governor of Siem Reap province, declined to comment on the Adhoc statement yesterday, saying he hadn’t seen it.
He said any decision to release the 12 detained men would be made by the court. Provincial court officials could not be reached.