Following the mass arrest of more than a dozen land protesters in Preah Vihear province in January, one detainee is missing, and his family is raising concerns over his safety.
The provincial court in late February issued an arrest warrant for Sum Moeun—five weeks after he allegedly escaped detention over breakfast—with authorities saying he had recently been sighted.
But his family and others questioned whether he had really been seen, saying he had been badly beaten during his arrest and would not have been well enough to escape in the first place. His wife, in her search for her husband, had been previously directed to Phnom Penh hospitals based on information from the district governor. She was then told that he had already escaped weeks earlier.
The U.N. has embarked on its own investigation over the whereabouts of Moeun.
A clash between the military’s Brigade 6 and villagers on Jan. 20—over disputed land on the Metrei Pheap plantation in Choam Ksan district’s Yeang commune—led to the reported arrests of 15 protesters. Fourteen remain in pretrial detention, but what happened to Moeun is unclear.
Preah Vihear provincial court prosecutor Ty Sovinthal told VOD on Feb. 26 that the court was issuing a warrant for Moeun’s arrest due to a recent sighting, about which he declined to give details.
“The judge issued an arrest warrant because he was seen,” he said, but would not disclose where or when.
“I won’t tell [you] yet until he is arrested. He has not admitted his mistake and he escaped from judicial police while he was having breakfast,” the court prosecutor said. “No problem! If he is still in Cambodia, he will surely be arrested. No problem!”
Sovinthal added that Moeun had “destroyed the forest,” referring to the villagers having cleared land for farming.
“He destroyed the forest and the U.N. already saw this. He destroyed the natural resources,” Sovinthal said.
Phu Phim Mao, Moeun’s wife, said she did not know what had happened to her husband since his arrest.
On Feb. 14, she came to Phnom Penh to seek help for her husband’s case and also visited some hospitals after being told by the Choam Ksant district governor that her husband was at a hospital in the capital, she said.
“Be honest and tell me!” she said.
“The district governor told me that my husband was at a hospital. I went to ask. I asked where my husband was. They said he had escaped,” she said. “I am looking for him and I still haven’t been able to find him. I have no information. If they are looking to arrest him, let’s do it and find him because now I cannot find him. Now, I have no way to look for him. I can’t find him and I have no more money to spend for looking for him. I sold a plot of land for $500 but I still can’t find him.”
Phim Mao said that when he was arrested, her family had seen him get badly beaten by the butt of a soldier’s rifle. She added that he would have contacted her if he was free.
Lor Chan, rights group Adhoc’s provincial coordinator for Preah Vihear, said he was also concerned about Moeun.
“If the authorities have really seen Mr. Sum Moeun, they should arrest him and hand him over to his family in order to put an end to this argument. But [I am] afraid that it is not like that, but instead Mr. Sum Moeun is missing, and [they] just gave an excuse that he was seen at this or that place,” Chan said.
“If he was seen, why didn’t [they] arrest him? I am also wondering. Let the media consider about this. I dare not say whether he was really seen or not because I also don’t know.”
Chan added that an arrest would also settle the concerns of the U.N.
A spokesman for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, Mahmoud Garga, told VOD on Feb. 19 that the U.N. was investigating the disappearance of a local resident in Preah Vihear province after the man was arrested by soldiers in January.
Garga added that the U.N.’s human rights team had met with related parties, including the district authority, Preah Vihear provincial prosecutor, military, relatives of the victim and NGOs.
In late January, more than 200 villagers embroiled in the land dispute with Metrei Pheap rallied in Phnom Penh to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to intervene in the case. They sought the release of the 14 detainees and a solution to the dispute, which involves more than 8,500 hectares near the border of Oddar Meanchey province that was formerly part of the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary. The land concession was granted in 2012 for a period of 70 years for proposed investments in rubber and animal husbandry.