Some 80 villagers embroiled in a long-running land dispute vowed on Tuesday to continue to protest outside the Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court until the release of their community representative, who was arrested on Monday for allegedly “affecting private ownership”.
Lem Chhuntry, 40, one of the villagers, said they were asking the court to release Long Sokunthy, who represents 246 families involved in the land dispute, which flared up in 2005 when Okhna Sam Phanarith began to clear the land they claim to have occupied since 2000 in Thnol Bot village.
The disputed land spans 1,850 hectares of land, and villagers have asked authorities for a solution to no avail.
“Authorities, the company and the court colluded with one another to abuse the people by not providing a proper solution,” Chhuntry said. “We come here to ask the court to free Long Sokunthy because it is unfair for the poor people.”
Fellow villager Uong Lai, 35, said Sokunthy’s arrest follows a January court summons for seven community members to appear in court by February 15, a date they all missed, but only the community representative was arrested.
“I will lead the protest until the court frees our representative because she has not done as charged and they charged her because they want to warn the people daring to protest over land disputes,” he said.
Sok Keobandit, prosecutor for the Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court, couldn’t be reached for comment. Roeung Lina, spokesman for the court, maintained he was unaware of the case.
But according to the January 26 court summons, those being asked to come in for questioning faced charges of “affecting private ownership” based on articles 248 and 253 of the Land Management Law. The summons also accuses them of intentional damage to private property in Beong Snor village between 2013 and 2015.
Ath Kham, police chief in Banteay Meanchey, said his officers arrested Sokunthy on Monday on orders from the court.
In Kongchit, coordinator for human rights group Licadho, said the case was typical of Cambodia.
“We have seen so many cases where powerful and wealthy people often mistreat poor people [by ordering] authorities to arrest any citizen representing the people who are daring to defend justice,” he said, adding that such moves were meant to distract and scare would-be protesters.
Contact information for Phanarith could not be obtained yesterday.