Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Lor Peang villagers appeal against in absentia land dispute verdict

People from the Lor Peang community submit a petition to the Ministry of Interior in Phnom Penh, September 10, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
People from the Lor Peang community submit a petition to the Ministry of Interior in Phnom Penh, September 10, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

A group of villagers from Lor Peang village in Kampong Chhnang province brought a complaint appeal against the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s decision on July 8 to sentence four villagers 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.

Oum Sophy, 41, one of the four villagers who were sentenced in absentia, said that she was appealing against the court’s decision along with fellow defendants Reach Seima and Pheng Rom. The three villagers maintain they do not know what the charges could be connected to, and that they did not commit any of the crimes of which they have been accused.

“We appealed because we are not satisfied with the court’s decision,” Sophy said. She told CamboJA that she was currently involved in three cases in total, two before in Phnom Penh and another before the Kampong Chhnang provincial court.

“I think that it is unjust for me and other villagers because we did not commit any crimes like the court charged,” she 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 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.

In a separate case on August 14, 2020 the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Sophy 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.

Sophy said that this Friday, her group of five villagers also submitted a letter to the appeals court requesting the right to represent 29 families from Ta Ches commune in Kampong Tralach district also involved in the land dispute.

“I request all courts, please decide based on independence and justice to let the poor people receive justice,” she said. “Because we have received injustice for a long time.”

She said that she and other five villagers had brought a petition to the Interior Ministry requesting the creation of a Boeng Pur reservation community. The ministry reportedly refused to accept the petition, suggesting instead that the group submit the petition to the Environment Ministry as the relevant authority.

“We will discuss with each other whether we will send a request to the Environment Ministry or not,” Sophy said.

Pheng Rom, 56, another villager who is appealing the sentence, said that none of the villagers had been issued with a summons to the proceedings, instead only hearing about the case when the municipal court issued a letter about the verdict last month.

“I am surprised with the court’s decision because this case happened a long time ago,” Rom said.

He told CamboJA that KDC had filed a lawsuit against him and a number of other villagers after local community members filed a complaint against KDC in 2011 demanding compensation for land that had allegedly been seized by the company.

“It is really unjust for us because we did not participate in the hearing, and the court sentenced us in absentia like this,” he said.

According to the letter on Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s verdict in absentia on August 5, said that July 8, 2021 the municipal court sentenced four villagers including Reach Seima, Oum Sophy and Pheng Rom, to one year in jail of incitement to commit a felony, intentional damage and use violence on property occupied by a person that occurred in 2012. The court ordered the four villagers to pay 20 million riel [about $5,000] of compensation to KDC.

KDC lawyer Phat Pouv Seang said that he could not talk about that case, only saying that the villagers had the right to appeal the sentence.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of human rights group Licadho, said that villagers in Lor Peang village have been named in many cases in Kampong Chhnang and Phnom Penh related to the dispute.

“I think it is a pressure and burden to them who are the victims of a land dispute, and it has not settled,” he said.

He said that the government should find a resolution for the land dispute for them because it occurred a long time ago.

“I think that the land dispute has been prolonged for a long time, it has many impacts,” he said. “I think that it’s time for the government to finish the land dispute for them.”   

Y Rin and Suos Vithyearandy, both spokesmen for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, could not be reached for comment.