Five farmers from Banteay Meanchey were wandering around a Phnom Penh courtroom by the time a Supreme Court judge was announcing a verdict date.
They had drawn blanks in the dock under questioning, freezing up as they stood before the judge. They wore sandals and tattered farmers’ clothes as they later took pictures outside the courtroom, their lawyer asking why they had failed to answer the judge’s questions. The lawyer reminded his clients that he had told them to say they didn’t understand the law.
In a land encroachment case, of which several particulars remained unclear after a Supreme Court hearing on Wednesday, the five farmers have been convicted for taking nearly 2,000 hectares of state land and sentenced to five years in prison.
They have not been put in jail, however, and they brought their appeal to the capital’s Supreme Court.
The five farmers, Koeuth Nouth, Van Chhorn, Um Ith, Ngor Kong Samoeun and Lekh Nhouth, took turns in the dock on Wednesday. But when the presiding judge asked each of them to state their appeal, they froze and did not know what to say.
Van Chhorn, 74, spoke up: He was appealing because he was poor and did not have 2,000 hectares. “I did not clear and bulldoze the forestland,” Chhorn said.
Lekh Nhouth, 58, said he did not know where the 1,895 hectares in question was. “When the commune police gave me the summons, I was shocked,” he said.
Others accepted they had settled on the land, but hadn’t realized it was illegal to live there.
Their lawyer, Ly Chheng, said his clients had limited knowledge and didn’t understand the legal system.
The Banteay Meanchey court had told them that if they moved off the state land, the case would end and they would no longer need to worry.
But the five farmers later learned they had been sentenced to five years in jail, and didn’t understand the appeal process so had missed a deadline, Chheng said.
Presiding judge You Ottara questioned the farmers on whether they had indeed moved out, whether they knew the area was state land and that it was illegal to clear state land, and whether they had been hired by other people to clear it. The answers were unclear.
In Banteay Meanchey’s Slakram commune, in Svay Chek district, commune police chief Rin Loek said there were around 300 families and 1,000 huts on the land in question. It used to be a battlefield between the Khmer Rouge and Hun Sen’s soldiers, Loek said.
“I don’t know anything about their case. I just know that when I received the warrant, I handed it to them,” he said. “They still live there in that location.”
New people were coming to claim the land illegally, he added.
“It used to be a lot of forest but now it’s gone,” Loek said.
Outside the Phnom Penh Supreme Court after their hearing on Wednesday, the five farmers posed for group photos, and exchanged phone numbers with their lawyer.