Nine people who were charged by the Kandal provincial court after protesting during an ongoing land dispute over a new airport in Kandal were released on bail on Monday evening. They face as much as five years behind bars if found guilty.
Chuon Sopanha, the spokesperson for the Kandal Provincial Court prosecution, confirmed that the nine villagers were released on bail on Monday evening at their families’ request.
According to the bail order issued by investigating judge Vann Sopanha, the nine people had been detained over three charges: intentional violence with aggravating circumstances, obstructing a public official with aggravating circumstances and incitement to commit a felony, under Criminal Code article 494 and 495. Those arrested can be punished by up to five years in prison.
According to the order, which CamboJA has seen, the release was based on their families’ requests as well as letters of apology written by their families.
More than 100 people in Boeung Khyang commune protested on September 12 after local authorities blocked the road leading to their farms and allowed the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corp (OCIC), which is owned by the well-connected Oknha Pung Kheav Se, to start clearing their farmland. Thirty people were arrested in connection to the protests. The other 21 detainees were released last week without charge. The land dispute has dragged on for more than three years.
23-year-old Dok Sinat, one of the nine people who has been charged, denied using violence during the protest.
“They told us that the state is developing an airport to serve the public interest, so the state has the right to confiscate or buy the land and we cannot deny, and the price of $8 [per square meter] is set by the state and the people have to participate,” she said. “I just heard the villagers say that if we refused to sell for $8, they would not release me, so my family just agreed. They seemed to take me hostage.”
Lonh Vanna, a relative of Sinat, said her family had submitted a letter on Friday to the Kandal provincial governor requesting her release on bail.
“District authorities and company representatives also asked people to consider selling the land for $8 to end the protests, but they did not force us,” she said. She added that her family may accept the compensation, fearing that her sister will get into trouble in the future.
“I still do not feel clear, because they have not dropped the charges, but we are worried that when there is a problem, they will take my sister back,” she said.
Kok Say, who is in charge of land acquisition for the new airport, told CamboJA on September 7 that the company is standing firm on its offer of $8 per square meter, or the option of receiving land in a nearby area.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of monitoring at rights group Licadho, said that while he was grateful for their release, the nine people were still facing criminal charges.
“We have prepared a lawyer to defend them in the future as well,” he said. “I understand that it is gratifying that they have been released on bail, but we still regret that the land issue remains unresolved and they are still logged in a court case.”