About 100 villagers from Koh Kong province protested outside the Land Ministry headquarters in Phnom Penh on Monday after 10 of their representatives were summoned for court questioning for defamation and incitement.
The villagers, who say they represent 197 families embroiled in a land dispute with the Heng Huy sugarcane plantation in Koh Kong’s Sre Ambel district since 2007, also traveled to the capital in early July. However, their claims to land were rejected by the ministry, which instead requested that legal action be taken against them.
The ministry said at the time that 987 families had already been compensated in the dispute, and that the 197 families had no legitimate claims — though a rights worker said officials seemed to be mixing up two different cases.
On Monday, the ministry reiterated that it had already reached five settlements with 148 families at the site of the protesters’ complaints and could not accept their case.
The villagers, from Chi Khor Krom and Chi Khor Loeu communes, said the Koh Kong Provincial Court had summoned 10 representatives for incitement to commit a felony and public defamation based on a complaint made by Heng Huy. Some had already been questioned, while others asked for a delay till later this month.
Deth Hour, one of the villagers summoned, said the court action was an escalation of the injustice against them.
“We really lost our land,” Hour said. “We lost our own land but a complaint was filed against us.”
Another summoned villager, In Thour, said her family had lost 8 hectares to the plantation and could no longer farm.
“I’m worried about our safety but I’m not afraid. I still demand my land,” she said. “If I don’t protest, what will I have to raise my children?”
The Land Ministry’s deputy chief of administration, Os Sok Yos, met the protesters and said he would pass on their complaints.
Pen Vuthea, a monitor with human rights group Licadho in Koh Kong, asked the ministry and court to investigate the land dispute.
“The court took action based on oknha Heng Huy’s complaint and accused the people without clearly investigating,” Vuthea said.
However, the Land Ministry said in a statement issued later on Monday that after looking into the case, the land being claimed by the 197 families had already been settled by 148 previous claimants. The earlier claimants had been registered and issued land titles, it said.
Ministry representatives had met the recent group of protesters to explain that it could not accept their complaints, and the villagers accepted the situation and agreed to return to their communities, the statement said.
However, Thour, one of the summoned villagers, told VOD on Tuesday that the protesters rejected the ministry’s claims and remained in Phnom Penh. They were meeting ministry officials again in the afternoon, she said.
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)