Land Disputants’ Arrests Spark Protests in Tbong Khmum

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People protest in front of the Dambe district hall in Tbong Khmum province on October 18, 2019. (Supplied)

Dozens of people in Tbong Khmum province protested the arrests of two villagers this week over an alleged crime from 2016, with an observer suspecting a link to the pair’s land-protest activities.

According to an order dated July 26, the Tbong Khmum Provincial Court ordered the arrests of Sem Sang and Phon Chhoeun, from Dambe district’s Trapaing Pring commune, for extortion with aggravating circumstances (use of a weapon) related to an incident from 2016.

The pair face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Four days earlier in July, the Land Management Ministry had requested legal action against Tbong Khmum land protesters, including Sang, who had joined hundreds of people from five provinces at a rally in Phnom Penh.

The villagers, who claimed 4,000 hectares of communal land had been sold without their consent to Chinese firm Harmony Win and local tycoon Chhay Chreay, were accused of being “former CNRP” without legitimate claims.

According to the court order, issued by Investigating Judge Hay Nai Heng, the complaint against Sang and Chhoeun was made on January 21, though the plaintiff is unnamed.

Soth Non, who participated in Friday’s demonstration outside the district hall, said the alleged 2016 crime appeared to be related to Sang and Chhoeun leading locals in opposing illegal logging three years ago, including confiscating a chainsaw from a suspected logger.

“[Sang] tried to protect the community forest,” Non said.

Theng Savoeun, director of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, said he had been monitoring the case and believed the arrests were intended as threats against local land disputants.

Savoeun called for the court to be transparent about the case.

“Sem Sang is a person who is actively working in his community to protect the people’s land against businesses and authorities in Tbong Khmum province,” Savoeun said. “We ask that the court provide justice to them through a clear investigation.”

Sang was arrested on Thursday while Chhoeun was arrested on Wednesday. Villagers also protested outside the district hall on Thursday.

According to Savoeun, the pair were being detained at the Kampong Cham Prison.

Dambe district governor Sok Sarith declined to comment, saying he was busy, while provincial police chief Ben Rath referred questions to provincial military police commander Va Sarith, saying the military police had handled the arrest. Sarith said he was busy in a meeting and could not comment.

(Transferred and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)

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