Koh Kong land activists sentenced to a year in prison for incitement
by Eung Sea
Koh Kong Provincial Court convicted 10 land activists Tuesday of incitement to commit serious social disorder and malicious denunciation, and sentenced them to one year in prison plus a total fine of 40 million riels to be paid to the plaintiff, tycoon Heng Huy.
“I am deeply saddened that the court believed Heng Huy, as hundreds of families lost their land because of Heng Huy’s encroachment,” said Tang Nim, the daughter of one of the sentenced activists Det Huor. “When we lose our land or lose something unjustly, are we not allowed to protest? Are we not allowed to speak? Is there a law that forbids it?”
The activists sentenced have been embroiled in conflicts with the tycoon dating back to as far as 2006, after companies linked to Huy, as well as tycoon CPP senator Ly Yong Phat, established sugar plantations on land local communities have farmed on for generations. The activists’ efforts to protect the land from corporate farming have led to a variety of legal disputes.
“All 10 were convicted with incitement to commit serious social disorder and malicious denunciation,” said court spokesperson Vay Phirom via Telegram, adding that those convicted may exercise their right to appeal the court’s decision “if deemed unfair.”
Huor and two other sentenced activists, Heng Chey and Sok Chey, had been arrested in a separate case in late June after they tried to travel to Phnom Penh to submit a petition to the Ministry of Justice calling for an end to state land grants for individuals. They were already detained in Koh Kong Provincial Prison before sentencing, and will stay there during the appeals process.
The other seven people sentenced will be allowed to remain out of prison pending appeal, according to the NGO Licadho.
Nim said her mother, Hour, represents the 197 Land Community in Chi Khor Loeu commune, Sre Ambel district. The court’s ruling is unfair because her mother did not incite disorder on Huy’s land as he alleged, Nim said, and she plans to appeal the decision.
Around 100 people gathered outside the Koh Kong Provincial Court in a protest after they heard about the verdict.
“We urged the court to drop all charges against them and release them unconditionally,” Nim said. “We did nothing to incite others but peacefully raised concerns and spoke out in defense of our land and fellow community members because we lost our land.”
In a separate ruling on August 4, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the Sihanoukville Appeals Court against Hour for defamation related to a Facebook post criticizing Huy for encroaching on people’s land. She was sentenced to one year in prison and fined 2 million riel, about $500, but her sentence was reduced to six months in prison and a 1 million riel fine.
On August 2, the Koh Kong Provincial Court found land activists Phav Nheung and Seng Lin guilty of defamation and incitement to commit serious social disorder, and sentenced them to one year in prison and a 40 million riel fine, about $9,600. They represent almost two hundred families who say they have had hundreds of hectares of vital farmland seized by the Huy since 2008 to make way for a sugar plantation.
“For me I think they are unjustly charged. We trust the government as our parents, our leaders, but they [the activists] were arrested for demanding our rights,” said Nheung’s son Hang Veasna. “Now we protest for the court to drop all the charges since we did not do anything wrong, but just [tried] to protect our land rights.”
Veasna said before the sentencing the defendants’ legal team had asked the court to release them on bail, but the court did not allow this. Nheung is in Koh Kong Provincial Prison and plans to appeal the ruling within one month, her son said.
Am Sam Ath, operations director with the Licadho, said that historically the rich have always made complaints against citizens who protest for their rights, using the courts to suppress and demoralize people involved in land disputes.
“We observe that the rich with power always seek solutions against the citizens in court cases. People’s rights to land and the right to adequate housing have been severely violated by the authorities and the judiciary,” he said.
He said these efforts from the wealthy and powerful violate the rights of citizens, especially the right to peaceful protest, as the right to land and decent housing is guaranteed by national and international law.
“We know that citizens have the right to demand an appropriate solution for themselves, which is a right enshrined in the Constitution.”