Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Kampong Chhnang land activists charged after livestreaming dispute

Land activist Oum Sophy and other villagers from the Lor Peang community submit a petition at the Ministry of Interior to approve Boeng Pur lake as a protected site. Photo taken September 10, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Land activist Oum Sophy and other villagers from the Lor Peang community submit a petition at the Ministry of Interior to approve Boeng Pur lake as a protected site. Photo taken September 10, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

A land activist who had previously been arrested during a long-running land dispute in Kampong Chhnang province has been charged with making a death threat after live-streaming from the site of a separate local conflict.

Police confirmed to CamboJA that on Saturday officers had arrested activist Oum Sophy, as well as her husband Snuon Nhoeun and villager Tuon Seng, for allegedly destroying another person’s property. By Monday evening, Kampong Chhnang Provincial Court spokesman Hong Kimhak said the investigating judge on the case had decided to press a different set of charges against the trio.

The spokesman said Sophy and her husband were both charged with threatening the life of the plaintiff. Seng is facing a charge of stealing property from the plaintiff, who is her neighbor.

The three are now in pretrial detention, Kimhak said. The court did not provide details on what motivated the charges.

The arrests came after Sophy had live-streamed from Tamol Leu village in Cholkiri district.

According to Prak Sophum, a local resident who said he’d witnessed the trio, said the allegations against them were baseless. Sophum said the accused Sophy had come to see the land of Seng, who was involved in a conflict with another villager and local officials. Sophum told CamboJA that five families, including his own, have been protesting local authorities for allegedly cutting some parts of their land to distribute to other families.

Sophum claimed authorities have been distributing plots of land to some 300 families in Tamol Leu village, ranging from plots of 15-by-50 meters to those who have lived in the area before, and 7-by-50 meters to newcomers.

He said that Seng was a member of the Lor Peang community and had asked Sophy for help in spreading information about her own land conflict. Sophum said the criminal accusations against the trio come from Seng burning garbage near a neighbor’s cattle shed. According to Sophum, the shed was not burnt in the fire but is the subject of the legal complaint.

“They do not damage cattle sheds,” he said. “I think it is a violation of people’s rights that they have been threatened over land.”

Chin Thanna, the commune chief of Koh Thkov, denied that authorities are taking land but said the villager Seng had occupied somebody else’s land that the government had provided.

“It does not involve the authority taking her land but, in fact, she has encroached on somebody’s land,” he said.

Either way, Sam Chankea, provincial coordinator of the rights group Adhoc, said the legal case appears to be a violation of the rights of the accused. Chankea noted that Sophy and her husband are not involved in the dispute in question, and only live-streamed from the site to disseminate information.

“It has the ill-intention of authorities in the pretext of taking that land and cracking down on land activists who dare come out to help people who are victimized,” he said, adding that authorities have failed to uphold the constitutional rights of villagers to raise their opinions.

Chankea said he will further investigate the land conflict described by Sophum.

As someone who is outspoken on land issues, Sophy has been the subject of numerous legal investigations. In late September, the Kampong Chhnang Provincial Court questioned four land activists, including Sophy, over a complaint of attempted murder and intentional damage after the group allegedly used knives to damage fishing nets in Kampong Tralach district’s Taches commune.

The plaintiff in that case had been fishing in a part of a lake, Boeng Pur, that the activists considered to be a protected site, a status rejected by local authorities. Though one of the activists said he had damaged the nets, all four denied any violent intentions.

Meanwhile, the Lor Peang community has been embroiled in a nearly two-decade long land dispute with agricultural company KDC, which is owned by Chea Kheng, wife of Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem.

KDC claims ownership of 512 hectares located in Kampong Tralach district’s Taches commune. Several dozen families have yet to settle their dispute with KDC, which they say grabbed about 100 hectares of their land in 2002.

On July 8, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced four villagers, including Sophy and Seima in absentia, to one year in prison for incitement to commit a felony, intentional damage and use of violence on property occupied by a person in 2012.

In a separate case involving KDC, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on August 14, 2020, convicted Sophy and former Lor Peang village chief Touch Ly of incitement to commit a felony and handed the activist a one-year suspended sentence after finding her guilty of inciting villagers to cultivate land belonging to KDC.