Eleven ethnic Jarai villagers – representing 200 families in Ratanakkiri’s O’Yadav district – on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in provincial court accusing a community leader of illegally clearing and selling 30 hectares of land they claim belonged to them.
But the accused, Pouy Plin – chief of the forest protection committee in Pak Thom village – denied the allegations, and had filed a lawsuit on February 15 against 14 of the villagers for defaming him after a petition with the same allegations circulated on January 22.
The lawsuit accuses Plin of “covertly selling the forest, farms, conservation land and surrounding mountain land” without agreement from the villagers.
“Our community didn’t know that he had sold the land,” said Klan Jib, 36.
The lawsuit alleges that Plin employed a Vietnamese and a Cambodian worker to operate two bulldozers to clear the land near the Sesan River in Sesan commune’s Patang village on January 17.
After clearing the land, Plin allegedly sold it to a border police commander, identified only as Oun, for $30,000, Jib claimed.
The suit further claims that in 2015, Plin tried to clear the land, but about 100 people protested and the clearing was postponed.
Chhay Thy, the provincial coordinator for the local rights group Adhoc, said the villagers had filed complaints to his NGO, provincial authorities and a lawmaker in January in an effort to find a solution.
After those complaints were filed, Plin sued the 14 villagers for defaming him publicly. He’s asking for a compensation of $5,000 from each of the 14 villagers, for a total of $70,000.
Plin rejected the allegations against him, saying it was the Patang villagers who sold the land to Oun in 2012. After that, villagers from Pak Thom covertly cleared the forestland illegally for their own properties.
He added that the machinery belonged to Oun. “I don’t know what they are relying on to sue me to the court,” Plin said. “I didn’t sell or clear the land.”
Thy has been summonsed to appear in court as a witness on Friday. Morm Vanda, deputy prosecutor, said he was working on the defamation case and would call relevant people to appear for questioning.