When Mau Choeun, 30, was summonsed to court for questioning over a land dispute in Battambang province’s Bavel district in March, he was swiftly charged and imprisoned.
Accused of violence against a private company that had seized his family’s land by way of a government-issued concession, Choeun spent almost three months locked up, only for authorities to drop charges against him in ambiguous circumstances in late May.
“They had high-ranking officials behind them, and when we gathered to protest they accused us of violence,” his father, Chhuth Mau, 64, said yesterday, referring to an oknha whose name he didn’t want printed.
The father and son were among about 500 protesters from 24 communities across the country who protested in the capital yesterday to draw attention to land disputes they say are frequently ending with imprisonment as well as eviction.
“We’ve come here to ask the [government] to stop using the court system to arrest defenders of land, natural resources and human rights,” he said.
Protesters sang and beat drums after beginning their show of dissent at the Ministry of Justice and dragged effigies of “corrupt officials” to the National Assembly, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Supreme Council of Magistracy.
Chhoeun, who himself was among protesters, said his younger brother, Mau Sanith, 28, and other representatives who had “protected our land for agriculture” had been summonsed to face court in the next two weeks.
“So we need the Ministry of Justice to intervene to drop our case,” he said.
Fellow villager Phon Phorn, 60, said families remained concerned that corruption was “happening everywhere”, including in court.
Members of the Community Peace Network (CPN), the Prey Lang Community Network and villagers from Snuol district in Kratie province, where logging has decimated the 75,000-hectare Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary, also marched.
Protester Sorn Yan, 60, from Snuol, said the National Assembly needed to crack down on illegal logging in remote areas and ensure concessions were cancelled when private companies breached contracts.
“Almost every day we see and hear the authorities cracking down on illegal logging and confiscating luxury timber and vehicles. Sometimes they arrest a few drivers . . . but those behind the logging are never caught.”
Seng Sokheng, executive director of Community Development for Peace and Sustainability and CPN’s national working group, lodged a petition with the National Assembly, whose officials, he said, claimed they could do little to help.
“I was very disappointed when the representative of the National Assembly . . . said it had no power to resolve our problems,” he said. “I told them that the National Assembly has the right . . . to order government officials to answer questions about whether what they are doing is against the law.”
Ministry of Justice cabinet chief Sam Pracheameinith said no one had the ability or right to interfere in court cases.
“But if [villagers] file a complaint directly to the ministry, we will send investigators to examine. But we ourselves do not interfere in court proceedings either,” he said.
Additional reporting by Mom Kunthear