The Koh Kong provincial court on Thursday continued to question four villagers over incitement and defamation charges in connection to their long-standing land dispute with businessman Heng Huy.

The four villagers are among 197 families who claimed to have been locked in a dispute with Huy, the owner of Heng Huy Agriculture Group company, over 421ha in Sre Ambel district since 2007.

In Thou, one of the four defendants who also represented the families, said on Thursday that she and nine villagers have been accused of defaming Huy and inciting others to commit a felony early this year.

She said the lawsuit came after the 197 families began to protest and petition local and national-level authorities for a solution, but the court did not take action against the other six villagers.

“The court has questioned four of us already and allowed us to return home, but they did not tell us whether they had decided to drop the case,” she said.

During the two-day questioning, around 130 villagers from Sre Ambel district who had erected tents outside the court since Wednesday gathered in the rain to show support for the four.

Kert Nov, another defendant, claimed the protesting families had been threatened by the company since 2007 and had not dared to protest until early this year when they filed petitions to relevant institutions seeking intervention.

Each family demanded 2ha and 29 million riel ($7,000) in compensation. However, the company turned down their demand and filed a lawsuit accusing them of defamation.

“The company claimed it had never grabbed our land, but it’s not true. Our community of 197 families has lost farmland and paddy fields. That’s a fact,” she said.

Hour In, the provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho who had provided lawyers for the four villagers, said the prosecutor had neither dropped nor referred the case to an investigating judge.

“After questioning, the prosecutor will decide whether to press or drop the charge. If they are charged, the case will be forwarded to an investigating judge for further action,” he said.

Provincial court deputy prosecutor Un Sovantheany did not respond to requests for comment as at press time.

On July 2, the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction issued a press release rejecting the land dispute claims of the 197 families.

It said a related land dispute involving 987 families over sugar plantation concession land – used to produce sugar for export – had already been resolved.

“For the 197 families who came to protest at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction on June 1, claiming they were involved in the land dispute, in fact, they are not involved and will not be given a resolution,” said the press release.