KEO Sovannavuth holds no illusions about her court case next week. She doesn't have
enough money to bribe the judge, so chances are that he will rule against her.
That means that she stands to lose the house she and her children have been living
in for 19 years.
This 40-year-old widow is but one of countless Cambodians struggling to obtain legal
rights to the houses or land they inhabit. Like many others, her case is a story
of forced movement, dubious documents and corrupt court rulings.
But through the years, Sovannavuth has also endured verbal abuse, physical assaults
and intimidation. In October last year, she and her son were even thrown into jail
by their opponent in the dispute.
Her story begins in the chaotic aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime, when hundreds
of thousands of dislocated Cambodians were searching for a home.
In 1979, Sovannavuth moved into a house on Monivong Boulevard in Phnom Penh. A year
later, the house was expropriated by the state, who needed it for a local police
unit. Sovannavuth was forced to relocate to the ground floor of a neglected building
on Street 63.
Ten years later, she realized that although the state had promised to find a better
house for her, this would be her permanent home. She decided to repair the building
and spent approximately $4,000 renovating and improving the house.
But that's when problems broke out with the family living in the flat on the second
story. The mother of the family, Mrs Uch Yan, complained that Sovannavuth had no
right to repair the building and embarked on a vicious campaign to make her leave
Though previously a friend and good neighbor, she instructed her son to assault Sovannavuth.
She threw food and household waste into Sovannavuth's yard. And she poured urine
and dirty water down the inside of the walls of the house, so it ran into the downstairs
kitchen and bedrooms.
"She has made it very clear that she wants us to leave the house because she
wants to own it all. She constantly abuses us and demands that we leave our house.
She actually says she does [it] so we will have to leave," Sovannavuth wrote
in a 1992 letter to the UNTAC Civilian Police, asking for help to solve the dispute.
The threats and abuses continued and when intimidation failed to chase Sovannavuth
and her family out of the house, the upstairs neighbors charged that they were the
rightful owners of the whole building. They filed a complaint and asked the court
to sign over ownership of the house to Dr Uch Yan.
In August last year, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court heard the case - a case that
Sovannavuth believes she should have won. For the hearing, she produced legal papers
and statements from Sangkat and Khan authorities to prove that she was the rightful
owner and resident of the property.
There was, however, a problem with the official land title for the house that was
issued during the State of Cambodia times. It didn't divide the building into a ground
floor and a second story flat, even though the house was now practically two separate
units. And the name on the document was the name of Dr Uch Yan's mother, so the Yans
used it as a heavy - though outdated - argument for their ownership.
Sovannavuth suspects that they also used another tool to win the case: money.
"Through my lawyer, I was asked how much money I could afford to pay the judge
who was handling the case. But I am poor. I could only pay the judge $300,"
The judge took her money, but later it seems the amount Sovannavuth could offer was
not enough to buy her justice.
" Just before the hearing day, I was told by my lawyer that the judge did not
agree to take $300. He wanted $8,000".
"Uch Yan is rich. He is a doctor and has made a lot of money. He had paid the
judge more than I did," says Sovannavuth, who got her money back after she lost
Now, she is waiting for the appeals court to hear her case. But she is not optimistic
about the outcome.
"I have very little faith that I will win. Everybody, even my lawyer and most
of the court officials, told me that I will lose because I don't have money to bribe
the judge," she says.
On Tuesday next week, Sovannavuth will know if legal documents and testimony of 19
years of residence will win her house back. Or if a simple stash of money is enough
to drive her out of her home.