Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court yesterday held a trial for four villagers accused by businessman Tan Tap of encroaching on his land in Stung Hav district.
In May, provincial military police arrested six villagers in O’Tres commune for allegedly clearing the businessman’s land. Two were then freed and the others charged.
Yesterday, defendants Loch Touch, Men Khen, Kao Heng and Nhanh Cheat denied the accusations, said a rights group official.
Cheap Sotheary, provincial coordinator with rights group Adhoc, yesterday said all four defendants were apprehensive in answering questions from the court due to a lack of knowledge of court procedure.
“During the trial, all four said they did not commit a crime,” Ms Sotheary said.
She said that the dispute was over an 84-hectare area, which 54 households claim belongs to them based on documents issued by local authorities, adding that the area was also designated as a protected area in 2002 by the Agriculture Ministry.
Ke Bunthoeun, a lawyer for the accused, said yesterday that his clients were sued on the basis of an older document issued in 1995 which he considered to be useless.
“The Agriculture Ministry designated the area as protected in 2002,” Mr Bunthoeun said. “So no one has rights to hold land belonging to the state.”
Villagers first came and occupied the area in 1992 and were given recognition by village and commune authorities in 2003, he said. Mr Bunthoeun noted that crops were already grown prior to the businessman’s issuance of land permits in 1995.
“They did not commit what the court alleged. I hope court officials would drop the charges against my clients,” he said.
Sun Sophat, a community representative, yesterday said villagers demanded the release of the defendants.
“We urge court officials to release them because they did not commit a crime,” Mr Sophat said.
Mr Tap declined to comment yesterday, while his lawyers could not be reached for comment.
The trial will continue on Wednesday.