Ten additional land disputants in Oddar Meanchey province have been summoned for court questioning amid a conflict on more than 1,000 hectares that was once a sugar plantation.
The 10 defendants were summoned by the Oddar Meanchey Provincial Court for questioning on September 7 for allegedly clearing forest land in the province’s Samraong city. The disputed land was given to San Heang (Cambodia) Import Export, with the Agriculture Ministry allowing the clearing of 1,500 hectares of land to harvest non-timber forest products.
Villagers claim around 1,100 hectares of the land, on the same site as an ongoing class-action lawsuit with Thai sugar company Mitr Phol. Residents say they used the land for decades till it was given to Mitr Phol and more recently to San Heang after the sugar plantation closed.
Previously, 11 residents were summoned for questioning at the provincial court on September 1 and 2 for allegedly falsifying documents and encroaching on San Heang’s land.
Lat Phout, one of the defendants in Konkriel commune, said this week that villagers were looking for a lawyer to represent them, but failing that they would petition the court to delay the proceedings.
“[If] we have a lawyer, we will feel warm. When we go to see the judge, and he questions us, we will answer based on reality that we have used the land for a long time.”
The residents were accused of illegally clearing and occupying forest land, but his family had farmed the area since 1999, Phout said.
“We have been relying on it for a long time and we did not violate as alleged. The accusation that we violated state land is wrong.”
Prean Vy, who has 2 hectares for cassava and rice, asked the court to drop the case, and for authorities to survey the area to give land titles to the residents rather than threatening to imprison them.
“What if the land is taken away? How can we make a living?” Vy said. “Every day, I am very worried. We did not act as they’ve alleged, but in the warrant they accused us of committing a criminal offense.”
The summons says the 10 villagers have been charged and placed under court supervision for the alleged crime of cutting, clearing and fencing forest land five months ago in Konkriel commune’s Ta Man village.
Human rights group Adhoc’s provincial officer, Srey Naren, said the villagers had asked for help to find a lawyer, and he was preparing a request. The San Heang project spanned two districts, and Naren estimated that thousands of families were affected.
Residents have said that the company has been staking its claim to the land since the beginning of this year.
Provincial governor Pen Kosal said the cases were being handled by the court, and the provincial administration would not interfere.
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)