Representatives of 180 families from Trapaing Pring commune in Tbong Khmum’s Dambe district, who are involved in a land dispute, on Sunday demanded that authorities release two fellow representatives held by police under a court warrant.
The group, which totalled more than 100 representatives, claimed the arrest was unreasonable because it is a way to deter the public from holding protests to defend their land from Chinese company Hamenivent Investment.
A representative, Sem Chamnan, said Sem Sang was arrested by police on October 17 after he returned from a seminar on chicken raising and producing drinking water in Kampong Chhnang province.
Another representative, Phon Chhoeurn, who lives in Bosnor village, Trapaing Pring commune, was also reportedly arrested at his house on October 16 without being provided an acceptable reason.
Chamnan called for the authorities to release Sang and Chhoeurn because they did not commit any illegal act as alleged by the district authority and Hamenivent Investment.
“They didn’t do anything illegal but just wanted to stop evil individuals from clearing the forest land in 2016 and making it private land. Later on, they [Hamenivent Investment and Sang, Chhoeurn] filed the lawsuits against each other,” said Chamnan.
Another citizen, Mon Sithou, said Sang and Chhoeurn had earlier appeared in Tbong Khmum Provincial Court for clarification related to the allegation of using violence and secretly hiding weapons.
However, the district authority and Hamenivent Investment subsequently filed a complaint against the two representatives after they led the people to stop forest clearing activities, and organising them to protest, demanding resolution to the dispute.
Sithou said the court charged Sang and Chhoeurn over the two cases in accordance with the Criminal Code, but the allegation contradicted the truth.
“First, it [Hamenivent Investment] accused Sang and Chhoeurn of seizing their chainsaws used to clear the forest. Then, Sang and Chhoeurn were alleged to have secretly hidden guns at the disputed land area. This is unfair, so I ask the authorities to release them as soon as possible,” said Sithou.
Dambe district governor Sok Sarith declined to comment on the case.
Trapaing Pring commune chief Mom Sabun said on Sunday that citizens involved in the land dispute had lawfully sold nearly 1,000ha to Hamenivent Investment in 2010. However, only a small group demanded their land back in 2016.
Sabun said nearly 1,000ha is forestry land which people used for agriculture and to harvest additional vegetables for food.
“I explained to them about this case so many times, but they did not listen to the authorities. They always held protests to demand their land back.
“They can’t get their land back as they have sold it to a private company. How can they get the land back if the land is completely planted with crops?” asked Sabun.
A representative of Hamenivent Investment could not be reached for comment.
Provincial court spokesman Theng Cheang said investigating Judge Hai Naiheng decided to detain the accused, Sang, on October 17 according to Articles 363 and 366 of the Criminal Code, while Chhoeurn has not yet been sent to the court.
“I am not aware of calling to release them because this is according to the procedure of the court. They should hire a lawyer to help them,” said Cheang.
A warrant ordering the suspects to attend court, which was issued by Judge Naiheng on July 26, stated that Sang, 37, who is a farmer, was charged for seizing with aggravated assault using weapons. The case happened in Trapaing Pring commune, Dambe district on February 18, 2016.
“Sang must be brought to Tbong Khmum Provincial Court to allow the investigating judge to question him related to the above case. Also, police officials must execute the matter,’ the warrant read.
Tim Narin, Kampong Cham and Tbong Khmum provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said despite the authorities claiming the people sold the land to the Chinese company, they should seek a good resolution rather than use the court system to detain them in prison.
She said by doing so, they are negatively affecting their right to freedom.
“The authorities should not use the court system to detain them in prison. All stakeholders should take time to discuss this because there are many possible resolutions,” said Narin.
There are 14 forest land communities covering over 5,000ha in Dambe district.
These plots are located mostly in Trapaing Pring commune, and some in the communes of Kork Srok and Seda. Some 785ha in Trapaing Pring commune has been the subject of a dispute between 180 families and a Chinese company since 2011.