A TOTAL of 306 villagers have been charged this year in connection with land disputes in 18 provinces, according to figures released by rights group Adhoc yesterday.
Ouch Leng, Adhoc’s land programme officer, said that of those charged, 128 were released on bail after periods in detention, while 51 remain in prison. He said the remaining 127 had fled their homes to escape the charges.
He claimed that in many of the disputes – which have pitted thousands of villagers against “companies and powerful people” who are the beneficiaries of government-granted economic land concessions – the judiciary often sided with the more dominant party.
“The courts did not provide justice for villagers but arrested them when they received a complaint from a company,” he said.
“The courts have no willingness to provide justice to villagers – they are partial to the companies. The courts are a tool for companies to use to threaten villagers and force villagers to stop protesting.”
Ouch Leng said Adhoc had not collated statistics of how many companies or businessmen had been prosecuted following land disputes, but noted that the number was likely to be low.
“When villagers file a complaint to the court about a company or powerful people clearing their land, nobody takes action,” he said. Their powerless position had led some villagers to attempt to resolve the situation “in their own way”.
As a result, Ouch Leng said, villagers had been charged with criminal offences including destruction of property and violence against property owners.
He said police, military police and local authorities also often supported companies or powerful businessmen in land disputes against villagers.
The largest number of villagers charged in a land dispute case came from Takeo province, which saw 55 people charged, according to the Adhoc figures. There were eight people charged in Phnom Penh.
Ouch Leng said some 14,316 villagers involved in 62 different land dispute cases had participated in 168 separate protests over the course of the year.
Sam Prachea Manith, the Justice Ministry’s cabinet chief, dismissed claims that the judicial system favoured the rich and powerful or ignored the rights of villagers.
“The court takes action in all filed complaints,” he said. “They do not discriminate between poor or rich people.”
Chan Sarun, minister of Agriculture, said Wednesday that the government had granted private companies a total of 3.5 million hectares worth of land concessions this year.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, declined to comment on the Adhoc figures yesterday, saying he had not yet reviewed them.
According to figures cited in a report released by the rights group Licadho last week, nearly 300,000 Cambodians – roughly one out of every 50 citizens – have been victims of land-grabbing since 2004.
Yeng Virak, director of the Community Legal Education Center, said court monitoring projects had revealed that the judiciary was slow to respond to complaints from villagers and “always” moved more swiftly on behalf of rich or powerful complainants.
“I hope that the courts will improve their jobs and provide justice to villagers, otherwise villagers don’t know who they can depend on,” he said.