Former Justice Ministry undersecretary of state Seng Sovannara has been sentenced to 30 months in jail in relation to land grabbing of around 1,000 hectares in Mondulkiri, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said.
Sovannara was removed from his Justice Ministry position in 2019 following accusations that he had taken control of 990 hectares in a wildlife sanctuary and threatened indigenous Bunong villagers to hand over 472 hectares of their land.
The 990 hectares was initially granted by the province’s then-governor before being rescinded. That governor, Svay Sam Eang, was among 10 local and national government officials identified in 2020 as being involved in land grabbing in Mondulkiri. Some of the officials were merely transferred over their transgressions.
Villagers in Mondulkiri have spoken of land sales and clearing ramping up in recent years — even on indigenous community land and burial grounds.
Phnom Penh court spokesperson Suos Vichearandy said a judge on Tuesday sentenced Sovannara to 30 months in jail. Three accomplices — Sin Po, 59, a former village chief; Van Sothea, 36; and Po Choy, 34 — were sentenced to two years in jail, Vichearandy said.
Environmental activist Kroeung Tola said the verdict was a warning message to other officials against grabbing land in the province.
“This sets an example for leaders and other officials — it is fair and it is acceptable,” Tola said.
But much more land grabbing was still happening. “I have seen that [others] still grab land, but the difference from Sovannara is that they use brokers and people to do it, while Seng Sovannara showed his own face,” he said.
Tola added that there was still a disparity between how easily and severely ordinary people were punished compared to the relative impunity of officials.
“Ordinary people who have no money and no power … would face very serious charges over very little [land],” he said.
Correction: This article previously misstated that Seng Sovanna was sentenced to 29 months in jail.