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Court sentences Cambodian land activists who tried to travel to capital for protest

A provincial court on Tuesday sentenced 10 activists to one year in jail in a case that stems from several long-running land disputes that have triggered protests in Cambodia’s southwestern Koh Kong province.

The activists were arrested in late June after they tried to travel to Phnom Penh to submit a petition to the Ministry of Justice. 

The Koh Kong Provincial Court convicted them of malicious denunciation and incitement to provoke chaos. They were ordered to pay 10 million riel (about US$2,400) to tycoon Heng Huy, whose company is involved in one of the land conflicts in the coastal province near the Thai border. 

Illegal land grabs by developers or individuals are not uncommon in Cambodia, where officials and bureaucrats can be bribed to provide bogus land titles. Disputes over land are one of the major causes of social disturbances throughout Southeast Asia.

“The activists have endured numerous disputes dating back as far as 2006, after companies linked to tycoons Ly Yong Phat and Heng Huy established sugar plantations on community land,” the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, or Licadho, said in a statement.

“However, the activists’ efforts to protect their land have been continually met with authority-led harassment,” it said.

Police threatened other community members who gathered in front of the provincial police station on June 30 after the arrests. They later prevented people from gathering in front of the provincial court.

But on Tuesday, about 100 people were able to demonstrate in front of the provincial court to show support for the defendants, activists told Radio Free Asia.

One defendants’ sentence was fully suspended, while the remaining nine intend to appeal, activists told RFA.

Other recent decisions

One of the defendants, Kert Nov, told RFA that she is worried about how her family will be affected if she is jailed. 

“I won’t accept the one-year jail conviction because I didn’t breach any law,” she said. “I will appeal the decision.”

Radio Free Asia was unable to reach court spokesman Sou Sovannara and provincial Gov. Mithona Phuthong for comment on the sentences.

Several other court decisions were issued this month related to Koh Kong land disputes. 

The Supreme Court on Aug. 4 upheld additional convictions of malicious denunciation and defamation against Det Huor, a representative of Koh Kong villagers who has led demonstrations in Phnom Penh. 

On Aug. 2, the provincial court found two women activists, Phav Nheung and Seng Lin, guilty of defamation and incitement to provoke chaos. Both were sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and ordered to pay 40 million riel (approximately US$9,600) in compensation. 

In Koh Kong, hundreds of villagers have also accused Ly Yong Phat, a senator from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and casino tycoon with business interests in the province, and the Chinese-backed Union Development Group, UDG, of encroaching on their land.

UDG is building a US$3.8 billion project that includes a seaport, resorts and casinos in Koh Kong.

Translated by Yun Samean. Edited by Matt Reed.