The Appeal Court handed down three-year sentences today to nine people from Siem Reap province’s Chi Kraeng commune for stealing property, while other charges and separate cases remain in connection with an ongoing land dispute.
Taking into account time served since their arrest on March 22, 2009, the court ordered eight villagers to serve an additional eight months and the ninth, Chheng Saroeun, to serve one more year, according to Sam Chetra, a lawyer provided to the villagers by the rights group Licadho.
The Siem Reap provincial court convicted two villagers in October 2009 and sentenced them to one year in jail and fined the other seven.
All remained in prison however while the prosecutor appealed.
A total of 12 villagers remain in prison on various charges in connection with the dispute, which sparked in 2005 and involves 92 hectares of land, 175 families from four villages in Chi Kraeng commune and 44 families in Anlong Samnor commune.
Both communes are in Chi Kraeng district.
Local authorities decided in favour of Anlong Samnor commune and filed assault and incitement charges against several Chi Kraeng villagers, sparking protests.
On March 22, 2009, police fired on about 80 protesting Chi Kraeng villagers, who demanded that they be allowed to harvest rice in the disputed area, injuring four.
More than 40 locals – including the nine in this case – were detained for questioning and required to sign agreements to abandon the dispute.
No charges were brought against the officers.
Luon Savath, a Buddhist monk and village representative, said the villagers were innocent.
“They are not guilty. I never hear those who harvest rice fields on their land face charges of robbery,” Luon Savath said.
Rights groups denounced the ruling.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for Licadho, called on the court to drop the charges.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the court’s decision was “clearly an attempt to offer some degree of legitimacy to the ongoing detention of these men”.
“A day after the release of Thach Saveth was ordered by the Supreme Court, it looks like it is back to the business of repression under the guise of the legitimacy of judicial order in the courts of Cambodia,” Ou Virak said.