Some 300 villagers protested in front of the Preah Sihanouk provincial court on Thursday while it heard a case against their four representatives who were arrested for “using violence against the owner of an immovable private property”.
The villagers from Stung Hav district’s Otres commune have been locked in a land dispute with well-connected businessmen Tan Tab and Lunh Vannak.
The protesters demanded the court drop all charges against the four, who were identified as Loch Touch, 55, Men Khen, 36, Nhanh Cheat, 35, and Kao Heng,43.
Yu Veasna, one of the protesters, said villagers representing the 13 communities involved in the land dispute want the court to stop delaying its proceeding and release the four so they can celebrate the upcoming Pchum Ben festival with their families.
“The court has questioned them already. I don’t know when they will announce a verdict. They just keep questioning them instead of delivering a verdict,” he said.
Defence lawyer Keo Bunthoeun said the provincial court was still questioning the accused and existing witnesses and would continue to question five other witnesses on November 3.
He said after the hearing that the court is likely to drop all charges due to a lack of evidence.
“The court did not have enough time for questioning, so they will question them again. Beside that, the court does not have enough evidence to sentence the defendants. I think the court will release them very soon,” he added.
Provincial court spokesperson Yim Bunnareth said he was not familiar with the case.
“I am not sure because I did not attend the hearing,” he said.
Deputy prosecutor Lim Bun Heng declined to comment as the case was still ongoing and referred a reporter to the court spokesperson.
“You can ask the provincial court spokesman because this case has not reached a stage where my response is needed,” he added.
The ongoing case started when Tan Tab filed a lawsuit against the villagers, prompting police to arrest six of them on May 7 while they were on the disputed land, which the local authority said originally belonged to the villagers.
While the villagers claimed they have lived on the land since 1992, Tan Tab said he had 16 land titles amounting to 85ha.
The four accused have been charged with “using violence against the owner of an immovable property” under Article 253 of the Land Law. The other two villagers were released after questioning and upon the plaintiff’s request.
If convicted, the four defendants face up to two years behind bars and a fine of 25 million riel ($6,250).