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Court Officials Briefly Held Hostage by Mob

Six provincial court officials and nine security personnel on Tuesday were briefly held hostage in their own court compound by a group of angry villagers demanding the release from jail of four men.

Two judges, one deputy prosecutor and three clerks left the compound around 5:30 pm Tuesday, following two hours trapped inside the compound.

“I didn’t expect to be a hostage in the court,” said judge Im Bopha after his release. “But the villagers don’t know about the law. Now everything is OK.”

About 60 villagers had amassed outside the gate of the Pursat provincial court compound late Tuesday, refusing to unlock the compound’s gate until they spoke with local authorities.

The villagers had arrived earlier Tuesday in anticipation of a court hearing against four men arrested last year in a dispute between villagers and a local land title office in Banteay Meanchey province.

The men, Chea Sitha, Mam Sarun, Dum Chanthon and Chhor Touch, face a six-month jail term if found guilty of destruction of state property, for allegedly tearing a property marker out of the ground in a June 2008 protest in Tuol Pursat village, Poipet commune, O’Chrov district.

However, when Tuesday’s proceedings were postponed, the protesting villagers demanded the release of the four men. Police refused, driving away and injuring two protesters in the process, further angering the group.

“I bought a lock from the market for 10,000 riel, and then I locked the gate because I’m angry with the court for not releasing my husband [Chhor Touch], who has been in jail since last year,” said Phon Nop, 44.

After evening negotiations between villagers and authorities, the gate was unlocked.

“Now the gates are unlocked, after authorities tried to explain to the villagers the law,” said On Sokonn, Pursat military police commander. “If you are angry with court officials, don’t commit such action. We should keep this situation within a legal solution.”

The next hearing on the four men with be Feb. 20. No arrests were made in the episode.