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Land activist tried in absentia on decade-old incitement charge

Lor Peang villagers gather in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on July 14 to show support for land activist Oum Sophy, who the court tried in absentia for alleged incitement. Panha Chhorpoan

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on July 14 heard the case of a land rights activist charged with incitement for her involvement in a long-running dispute in Kampong Chhnang province, although she did not attend the trial for fear of arrest. 

The Kampong Chhnang Provincial Court charged defendant Oum Sophy with incitement to commit a felony for allegedly encouraging villagers to cultivate contested land in 2008. Former Lor Peang Village Chief Touch Ly and former Ta Ches Commune Councilor Suos Siphai were also charged. Ly attended the hearing as three witnesses had provided exculpatory evidence in her case, while Siphai died of illness in 2010. 

Sophy, 41, said by telephone on the day of her hearing that the provincial court had issued an arrest warrant for her after charging her with incitement in August 2008. She said she had traveled to Phnom Penh with plans to attend the trial, but became too concerned over the risk of arrest.

“As we know, Cambodia’s court system will find no justice for a poor person,” Sophy said. “Secondly, I am afraid of [police] arresting me.”

The land rights activist said she does not accept the charges against her, and called for a solution for the remaining families who are still seeking the rights to more than 100 hectares of land. The area is also claimed by agribusiness company KDC, which is owned by Chea Kheng, wife of Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem.

“I cannot accept that the court had charged me with incitement because I did nothing wrong,” she said, adding that currently, 35 families have yet to settle their dispute with KDC, which they say grabbed about 100 hectares of their land in 2002.

The Lor Peang community has been embroiled in a nearly two-decade long land dispute with KDC, which has claimed ownership of 512 hectares located in Kampong Tralach district’s Ta Ches commune.

On the morning of July 14, about 30 villagers rallied in front of the municipal court to show support for those on trial as Ly took the stand in the courtroom, saying she was not involved in inciting villagers to cultivate the disputed land.

“I did not commit the crime,” she said. “Please, I ask the court officials to drop the charges,” she said, adding that she was not present in 2008 when rice was planted on the disputed land in 2008.

 Lor Peang community member Keo Vannak said outside the court that she had come to support Sophy, and also called for charges against the community representative to be dropped

“It is unjust that the court has charged Oum Sophy with incitement because each person had farmed land individually,” she said.

“We came to cultivate our land. It wasn’t incited by Oum Sophy,” Vannak explained, adding that her family had been living on about 3 hectares of the disputed area from 1982 until around 2007. Since then, her former plot has been occupied by KDC.

“It is absolutely a violation of the rights of the people,” she said.

Che Song, a deputy prosecutor at the municipal court and Phat Pouv Seang, the attorney for KDC, both asked that the judge find the defendants guilty.

“Any excuse from the defendants is baseless, as the court has enough evidence showing that they committed the incitement,” Song said. “Please, judge, consider this according to the law.”

Pouv Seang, the plaintiff’s lawyer, said that in 2008, all three defendants had incited villagers to plant paddy rice on land belonging to KDC, which he said had held 105 land titles showing its ownership of 512 hectares since 1997.

“Oum Sophy was one of the people who incited villagers to cultivate land owned by the company,” he said.

“If Oum Sophy was present in the courtroom, I would ask the court to arrest her immediately because the court has already issued an arrest warrant,” Pouv Seang said. 

The lawyer for KDC requested that the case be transferred to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in 2009 after claiming that many villagers had protested when the Kampong Chhnang provincial court had summoned members of Lor Peang village for questioning.

Sam Sokong, defense lawyer for Sophy, asked the court during the July 14 hearing to acquit his client.

“My client Oum Sophy did not join in planting paddy rice that day because she was busy teaching her students at the school,” he said.

Instead, he suggested that a ruling party working group had encouraged villagers to cultivate the area to win favor in the community as part of its campaign ahead of the 2008 national election. According to Sokong, 100 villagers had planted rice on their land in July of that year, shortly after meeting with the CPP group.

“There is no incitement as my client has been accused of, stipulated in articles 494 and 495” of the Criminal Code, Sokong said, adding that the articles specify that incitement can only occur through speeches made in a public place, in writings distributed to the public, or by audio-visual communication to the public.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group Licadho said that he was concerned that more Lor Peang villagers could be tried and jailed on incitement charges by the court.

“I think it is another burden on the villagers to face these charges of incitement,” he said, adding that other members of the Lor Peang village had been jailed in the past on other charges.

“It is time now that the government should end this long-running land dispute with villagers in the Lor Peang community,” Sam Ath said.

The municipal court is scheduled to announce a verdict in the case on August 14.

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