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Rights Groups Say Pressure on Land Protesters Increasing

In this photo taken on March 17, 2011, rubble are scattered around houses on the edge of Boeung Kak, Phnom Penh's largest lake. The residents of the area are being evicted from their homes to make way for upscale villas and office buildings.

Dozens of land protesters have been detained and hundreds were charged in the courts in the first nine months of this year, indicating an increase in pressure by the judiciary in land disputes, rights groups said Wednesday.

In separate calculations on cases related to land disputes, Adhoc said it recorded 46 detentions and 173 court charges, Licadho said it counted 35 detentions and 163 charges and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said it counted 26 court charges, all from January to September.

Charges included incitement, for land protests, and the destruction of property related to protests, demonstrations and disputes.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the detentions and charges put “more pressure on poor villagers” by a court system that “is not independent.”

“This violates the people’s rights to justice, fair trial and fair hearings,” he said.

Chan Saveth, lead monitor for Adhoc, said the number of court actions against villagers had increased from last year.

“The authorities are now using the courts to prevent the people’s spirit to struggle in land disputes,” he said. The charges usually stem from complaints lodged by “powerful sides” in such disputes, he said.

Companies or “powerful men” use the complaints as pressure, said Am Sam Ath, chief investigator for Licadho, leading “people to not peacefully solve the dispute.”

Both Licadho and Adhoc said they had not noted a measurable increase in the number of land disputes themselves, but in the number of court actions related to them.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said rights organizations should raise the problems of detentions and complaints with the courts themselves and with the government to help strengthen the rule of law.

“The courts must find and maintain justice for all parties,” he said. “Judges cannot be free from law. We should find an effective way to strengthen justice for all people in Cambodia.”