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Verdicts Delayed in Complex Land Case

Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday indefinitely postponed the verdicts of eight people, including a deputy provincial governor, charged with illegal land development in Preah Vihear province.

Investigating judge Nhean Sovann said the case was "very complicated" and a big case, "so we cannot declare a verdict today."

The court needed time to consider all elements of the case, and the verdict will be announced in coming days, he said.

If convicted, Meas Sarouen, 49, former deputy governor of Preah Vihear; Sar Map, 47, Sa Em village chief; Mann Chantha, 32; Mann Chanthon, 28; Rim Roey, 25; Chheun Chheng, 34; Sum Sopheak, 27; Nov Tit, 34; face a maximum fine of 200,000,000 riel, or about $49,000, and up to 10 years in prison.

The eight men were arrested in November 2007, after forestry officials of the Ministry of Agriculture accused them of illegally clearing 135 hectares of state land in Chhoam K'san district, Preah Vihear province.

On Nov. 15, 2007, Cambodian police, military police and forestry officials began a three-day operation which led to the arrests of 16 people, the deaths of two villagers, and the serious injury of four others.

Chhay Cheng, who was the wife of Mann Chanthon, and Oeun Eng, another villager, were both shot dead by the security forces.

Police say the villagers were armed with bows and arrows and hand grenades, forcing them to open fire during the crackdown.

Seven of the original 16 arrested were charged with illegal land development and were released on bail and will face court charges later. Another man charged in the operation is in a hospital in Vietnam, ill.

Defense lawyers for all eight accused said during a hearing on Monday the 22 villagers were clearing the land for farming and housing, but they were unaware the government owned it.

The defense also denied the grenades belonged to the villagers, saying the explosives were left over ordnance from fighting between government forces and the Khmer Rouge.

The villagers had bows and arrows for hunting and did not use them against the authorities, defense lawyers said.