Pheng Thak, president and founder of the Pheng Thak Salt Association of Kampot, will be tried by the provincial court today on charges of illegally encroaching onto and clearing state-owned mangrove forests for the purposes of producing salt, a provincial court official said.
However, according to Pheng Thak, 70, and a statement on his behalf from Kampot provincial governor Khoy Khounhour, the Salt Association legally owned the land until 2010, when it was folded into government holdings by a decree from the Council of Ministers. If found guilty, Pheng Thak would not only lose his claim to the land, but could also face up to five years in jail.
“I think that the accusation and the charge against Peng Thak were unjust, because he did not cut these flooded areas as accused,” said Kao Soupha, Pheng Thak’s lawyer.
According to Kao Soupha, the mangrove forest in question had been cleared by Vietnamese troops in 1980, and Pheng Thak had been in possession of the land, and producing salt on it, since 1989. “He was only a victim of his land being grabbed by the provincial authorities,” he added.
However, Chum Samban, general prosecutor of the Kampot Provincial Court, maintained that Pheng Thak occupied more than 20 hectares of government land in Kampong Thnoat village in Teuk Chhou district.
“Pheng Thak was sued by Kampot Provincial Fisheries Department in 2010, and was charged by the court with illegally clearing and encroaching on mangrove forests in the province,” he said.
According to governor Khoy Khounhour, however, Peng Thak had legally possessed the land since 1989, but in July 2010, the Council of Ministers issued an announcement, signed by Secretary of State Prak Sokhonn, taking a total of 20.78 hectares of land from him and incorporating it into state properties.
Kao Soupha said that Pheng Thak had recently written to both Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni, asking them to establish his legal claim to the land, but so far, they hadn’t intervened.
To contact the reporter on this story: Buth Reaksmey Kongkea at [email protected]