Kampong Chhnang Provincial Court on Wednesday questioned four land activists 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 when the plaintiff went fishing in a part of the lake they considered to be a protected site. The activists maintain part of the lake, Boeng Pur, is a protected site, though local authorities disagree.
Long Sitha, deputy prosecutor and spokesman of Kampong Chhnang provincial court, who is in charge of this case, said that the court finished questioning them but declined to comment further.
“We finished questioning them already,” Sitha said, adding that the court has not yet decided how to proceed.
According to a court summons signed by provincial court deputy prosecutor Long Sitha, Oum Sophy, Snguon Nhoeun, Reach Seima and Un Mon were to appear for questioning on September 15 related to a complaint filed by Pok Sotorn on April 20, 2021. The summons was issued at the end of July and received by the activists in August.
Oum Sophy, 42, a longtime land activist, told CamboJA that she, her husband Nhoeun, Seima, and Mon, were questioned by the provincial court on Wednesday.
“The court questioned me asking whether I intended to kill someone or not? I answered that I did not intend to kill someone like the accusation.”
“I requested the prosecutor to stop the charge on us because we do not have any wish to kill someone but we just maintain the protected site for general people,” said Sophy.
She added that the complaint against her and her group is intended to impact her reputation and waste her time.
Seima, 41, another of the accused, said that the lawsuit was unjust because he had no intention to kill anyone and he did not understand why the plaintiff filed a complaint against them like that.
Seima said after he told the court he had no intention to kill anyone they asked why he damaged someone’s fishing nets.
“I [told them I] banned him from fishing at the protected site many times but he did not listen, so I damaged his fishing nets.” Seima said.”We protected a part of the lake, Boeng Pur, because we want maintain natural resources for the general population.”
Seima said the court asked whether he had permission to treat the area as a protected site and he explained that he had for years requested permission from several Kampong Chhnang departments, but they never responded.
“I requested the court stop charging us because we did not do what they accused us of,” said Seima. “I request the government help to intervene to provide the permission to protect Boeng Pur site for the livelihood of general people.”
Keo Vannak, 59, a villager in Taches commune’s Lor Peang village who went to the court to support the group, said that she thought that they did nothing wrong and only wished to protect a part of the lake in order to keep fish growing in order to provide profits to the people in the future.
Vannak said that while many villagers support the group’s actions, some villagers and authorities have been unhappy with their efforts to ban fishing in that area.
“Her group banned the plaintiff many times but he does not listen and he still went fishing in the protected area, so they damaged the plaintiff’s fishing net,” Vannak said, adding that there was no attempted murder as alleged.
“We want the court to help find justice for them,” she said. “We want the court to drop the charge on them because they do not commit a crime like the accusation.”
Kong Chanmony, coordinator of human rights group Licadho in Kampong Chhnang province, said that he went to observe proceedings at the provincial court and he saw dozens of villagers appear in support.
Chanmony noted that the four accused just want to protect natural resources and said their activities should be encouraged by the authorities.
“I hope that the court will consider to find justice for them because they just protect natural resources for the public,” said Chanmony.
“What did they do, they just banned someone who goes fishing at the protected site, so according to the law, there are not enough elements to charge them,” he said.
The Lor Peang community has been embroiled in a nearly two-decade long land dispute with KDC, which 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, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on August 14, 2020, convicted Sophy and a former Lor Peang village chief Touch Ly of incitement to commit a felony and handed her a one-year suspended sentence for her involvement in a long-running land dispute in Kampong Chhnang province.
She was found guilty of inciting villagers to cultivate land belonging to agricultural company KDC, which is owned by Chea Kheng, wife of Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem.