A Battambang-based tycoon and deputy provincial governor were charged with embezzlement and corruption on Tuesday for their involvement in land grabs in the province.
Local businessman Song Thorn and Battambang Deputy Governor Sou Arafat were arrested and questioned by the Anti-Corruption Unit last week, in relation to the tycoon’s claims that he owned more than 5,000 hectares in Koas Krala district, including having a land dispute with villagers.
Phnom Penh Court spokesperson Kuch Kimlong confirmed on Tuesday that a deputy prosecutor, Soeun Moniroth, had charged Song Thorn under Article 601 for "intentional destruction and embezzlement", carrying a sentence of five to 10 years, as well as Article 605 for "delivering of briberies", which holds a similar prison sentence.
Sou Arafat was also charged with Article 601, and Article 594 for "accepting a bribery", carrying a sentence of seven to 15 years, Kuch Kimlong said, adding that both men had been sent to pre-trial detention.
“Now the investigating judge Im Vannak sent both of them to pre-trial detention,” he added.
Song Thorn has been involved in a convoluted land dispute with local residents from three communes of the Koas Krala district, claiming that 5,144 hectares of district land belonged to him, according to government documents obtained by VOA Khmer.
In a 2016 letter from Song Thorn to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, the local tycoon, also called an oknha, agreed to hand over 700 hectares of his alleged 5,144 holdings to the government to settle the land dispute and to build a park.
The tycoon claimed in the same letter that he had bought the land from local military officials.
However, in May 2017, then-Battambang Governor Chan Sophal sent another letter to Sar Kheng suggesting that 2,500 hectares of Song Thorn’s alleged land occupation be cut away: 463 hectares would be used to solve the land dispute, 200 hectares for a park named after Sar Kheng and 1,800 hectares would be returned to the provincial administration.
In a letter dated on July 25, 2017, Sar Kheng agreed with the proposal from Chan Sophal.
Khmer-language newspaper Koh Santepheap reported in 2018 that Song Thorn had filed a complaint against Sou Arafat with Sar Kheng, for cutting 2,500 hectares of his land instead of 700 hectares. He also admitted to giving Sou Arafat $25,000 to help generate land documentation.
Villagers in Koas Krala district of Battambang province told VOA Khmer that they were hopeful authorities would grant them legal land titles after Song Thorn had been charged for embezzlement, for claiming he owned the 5,144 hectares of land.
Yuom Yeub, 49, one of the disputants, said he had suspected that Song Thorn and local officials had colluded for many years since 2015, which is why authorities were reluctant to help villagers with their claims.
“The local authorities colluded with Song Thorn to make the fake documents to suppress the people’s claims,” Yuom Yeub said.
He added that seven villagers, including himself, had been sentenced to one year in prison in April 2019 for the charge of clearing Song Thorn’s land, which was now disputable.
“Song Thorn told us that he will not give even one finger-length of land to villagers,” he added.
Seub Kou, 49, another villager, said he wanted the government to legally provide the land to villagers, admitting that some villagers had settled there more than a decade ago, clearing the forest to live on the land.
“The authorities should give land to people and make the title for them so the dispute will end,” he said.
Heng Sayhong, Battambang provincial coordinator of rights group Licadho, said Song Thorn had come to the district around 20 years ago and had claimed to own a lot of land near the mountain, which was likely state land.
“There are several other powerful people who own a lot of state land here in Battambang province. There should be similar action [against them],” he said.
Pech Pisey, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia (TIC), said it was difficult to get a solution in land disputes when powerful or connected individuals colluded with local officials.
“There should be systematic checks to solve these problems and to find justice for the victims,” he said