Court’s ruling – the latest in twist in the long-standing land dispute – met with scepticism.
Siem Reap Province
SIEM Reap provincial court has acquitted five Chi Kraeng commune villagers accused of illegally detaining two men from a neighbouring commune, marking the latest development in a long-simmering land dispute that erupted into violence earlier this year.
The five defendants – Chan Leap, Sim Leap, Cheng Savoeun, Khlin Eang and Sing Samley – had been accused of illegally detaining two people from neighbouring Anlong Samnor commune for seven hours in a November 2008 altercation that began when the pair tried to plant rice in a disputed field.
The defendants’ lawyer, Loung Sokha, said the decision was a victory for the villagers. He said the case against them was part of a strategy to keep his clients quiet.
“They are opponents in a land-dispute issue, so another side files complaints against some vocal critics hoping to intimidate them so that they dare not protest,” Loung Sokha said.
But Sok Hay, the lawyer for the two complainants from Anlong Samnor commune, called the decision “unacceptable”.
“It is unjust for my clients,” he said, before vowing to appeal.
Sok Hay said his clients, identified as Sun Sam Ol and Taing Boukry, do not have phones and could not be contacted.
The court decision is the latest a lengthy dispute over 475 hectares of land in Siem Reap’s Chi Kraeng district. The Chi Kraeng commune villagers claim the land is theirs, but a court earlier awarded the territory to neighbouring Anlong Samnor.
The situation grew violent in March, when four Chi Kraeng villagers were shot and injured by police during a clash over the land. Despite calls from human rights groups to investigate, no police have been charged in the incident.
In the meantime, families and friends of the men acquitted Monday welcomed the verdict but were concerned that their loved ones would not be released immediately.
Chi Kraeng resident Loun Sovath noted that seven other villagers previously acquitted of robbery and assault charges stemming from a separate incident are still behind bars after court officials filed additional robbery charges against them last month.
“I am so worried the court will act in the same way” as in the previous case, he said.