The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on August 14 convicted a land rights activist 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.
The court sentenced Oum Sophy and former Lor Peang village chief Touch Ly in absentia, giving them each a one-year suspended jail term, a decision Sophy said was unjust.
Judge Tithsothy Borachath announced the verdict, finding Sophy and Ly 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.
“The court has decided to sentence Oum Sophy and Touch Ly to one year each in prison, but all sentences have been suspended,” he said, adding that he had also ordered both women to pay compensation of 1 million riel each ($250) to the plaintiff.
Borachath said the defendants have the right to appeal if they are not satisfied with the decision.
The Kampong Chhnang Provincial Court charged Sophy and Ly with incitement to commit a felony in 2008 for allegedly encouraging villagers to cultivate crops on a plot of contested land.
Sophy, 41, said by telephone August 15 that the court’s decision is unjust.
“I have done nothing wrong, so why have they [the court] convicted me and sentenced me to one year in prison?” she said.
“I cannot accept this decision, it is really unjust,” she continued, adding that she said she would speak with her lawyers before filing an appeal.
Cambodia’s court system is biased in favor of those who are rich and powerful she added.
“I have seen that poor people, most of them always lose their court case when there is a complaint filed over an argument with a company,” Sophy said.
During the trial on July 14, the court did not call witnesses who could exculpate her, and she said officials had previously failed to investigate at the site where the offense had allegedly occurred.
“I have four witnesses but the court did not allow them to testify at the hearing,” she said.
Phat Pouv Seang, a lawyer for the plaintiff, said he agreed with the court’s decision finding the defendant’s guilty.
“It is up to the discretion of the judge, so can’t say if [the sentence] is heavy or light,” he said.
“We have received justice because the court has found them guilty and whether we are satisfied or not is just our opinions,” Pouv Seang said.
Sophy’s defense lawyer Sam Sokong could not be reached for comment.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, said that these outcomes place a heavier burden on poor people, especially those who have been embroiled in land disputes.
“As we know, villagers who have been suffering from land disputes, when they are found guilty, they still have to pay compensation,” he said. “It is seriously affecting their rights and livelihood, in addition to their loss of land.”
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 Ta Ches commune. Several dozen families have yet to settle their dispute with KDC, which they say grabbed about 100 hectares of their land in 2002.