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Judge drops probe into Ratanakkiri land dispute

Judge drops probe into Ratanakkiri land dispute

A land grab investigation into Keat Kolney, the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, has stalled after the lead judge abandoned the case, saying that members of the Jarai ethnic minority who claim their property was stolen were refusing to cooperate with his probe.

Ratanakkiri Provincial Court President Ya Narin was attempting to map the borders of the contested 450 hectares in northeastern Cambodia but the Jarai villagers refused to let him, he said.

“I want to establish the scale of the land involved in this conflict,” he told the Post on April 29.

“I cannot proceed to the hearing stage of the case without evidence … it is quite difficult for me when they pretend to be ignorant.”

The villagers feel that demarcating the land would hinder their traditional slash and burn farming practices, said Romam Fil, speaking for the 70 families in Kong Yu and Kong Thom villages in O’Yadao district involved in the case.

The villagers in January 2007 filed a complaint to Ratanakkiri provincial court demanding back their land, which they say they were duped into signing over to Kolney in August 2004.

The case has since come to highlight Cambodia’s growing problem of land disputes – particularly those involving indigenous land, which under the 2001 land law cannot be privately owned or sold.

Kolney maintains that she has documents proving that she bought the 450 hectares legally. Since the sale, she has fenced off large portions of the property and planted rubber trees.

At the time of the alleged sale, some families received $400 cash, although others got far less.

The villagers’ lawyers at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) say that a bribe of $90,000 was paid to local officials to facilitate the deal.

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