The Supreme Court on June 15 heard the appeal of a former Koh Rong commune council member in Preah Sihanouk province who was sentenced to seven years in prison for “fraudulently” signing over 525ha of state land between 2016-19.

Hem Sa Les, 58, told the court on June 15 that he was the chief of Prey Svay village on Koh Rong island in Mittapheap district between 2001-18.

During that time, he said, villagers were involved in a land dispute with real estate tycoon Sok Bun, and he had been asked to be a witness, signing letters by people claiming they lived on the 525ha.

However, an Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) investigation in 2019 found that Bun had colluded with four Koh Rong commune councillors and a village chief to forge public documents in a bid to grab the 525ha, leading to the original trial.

Sa Les and Koh Rong commune chief Seng Hour Leang were each sentenced to seven years in prison by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in January 2020 and ordered to pay 10 million riel ($2,500).

They were found guilty of deliberate destruction and dishonest embezzlement, forging documents, the use of forged documents and abuse of power under articles 601, 629 and 630 of the Criminal Code, and Article 35 of the Anti-Corruption Law.

“I filed the grievance with the Supreme Court to ask for my sentence to be reduced as seven years is too long. I acknowledge that I did sign the letters, but I did so only as a witness,” pleaded Sa Les.

Prosecutor Chum Samban concluded that having checked the case, the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal had been lawfully correct in upholding the sentences as the accused had confessed.

“I ask that the Phnom Penh Appeal Court’s verdict be upheld,” he said.

Sal Les’s lawyer Bun Bronh told the court that his client had not falsified the letters as he had signed them as a resident and not as an official.

After a more than hour-long hearing, Presiding Judge Kong Srim said the verdict would be delivered on June 29.