Cambodian authorities on Tuesday challenged a rights activist in hiding to turn himself in and face prosecution for allegedly masterminding a plot by villagers to secede from Cambodia.
But rights groups questioned whether Bun Ratha, who led a mass land revolt in May, would receive a fair trial.
Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan called on Bun Ratha, who gave an extensive interview to RFA’s Khmer service on Monday from an undisclosed destination, to appear in court to rebut government charges that he spearheaded a secessionist plot.
In the interview, Bun Ratha rejected government claims that he had instructed villagers in Kratie province’s Chhlong district to secede from the country.
“This is a matter of justice. What [Bun Ratha] said to Radio Free Asia can’t be regarded as a legal statement for the court to consider,” Phay Siphan said, adding that the land activist should come to the court to make his statement instead of issuing it through the media.
Phay Siphan said Bun Ratha’s actions “prove that he intended to establish a self-governing zone,” accusing him of “abducting police officers,” “setting up illegal checkpoints,” and “ordering illegal detentions.”
He also accused the land activist of helping to arm the residents of Kompong Damrey commune’s Broma village in Kratie province with homemade weapons.
“We already gave that evidence to the court,” Phay Siphan said.
In May, the land row sparked a clash as a large number of military personnel carrying guns tried to disperse more than 1,000 families.
In the melee, a 15-year-old Heng Chentha was shot dead after she was struck by a bullet authorities say ricocheted after it was fired as a warning shot. Some of the villagers were armed with axes and crossbows.
Kratie Provincial Governor Sar Chamrong on Tuesday also urged Bun Ratha to turn himself to the authorities.
“Why doesn’t he come to the court to present this evidence, instead of only shouting it from far away?” he asked.
Bun Ratha also told RFA he had been “framed” by the government and that he had only acted as a representative of the Broma villagers who had rejected government demands to vacate their farmland for several months.
Cambodian authorities have said that the government owns the land in Broma village, but activists contend that it had already been awarded as a concession to Russian firm Casotim, which plans to set up a rubber plantation.
Activists say the villagers have been farming the land for years.
Opposition lawmakers and rights group officials questioned the court’s investigation into Bun Ratha and its independence from the government.
Mu Sochua, a member of parliament for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, demanded the court make public the documents it says show the intention of the Broma villagers to establish a self-governing zone.
She said that the government “cannot simply claim it is a self-governing zone and begin arresting people.”
“What is the status of this investigation? Where is the evidence? [I think] there is no evidence,” she said.
Licadho senior investigator Am Sam Ath said that Bun Ratha’s case should be resolved by the court, but fears that the judiciary may not be operating on an independent basis.
“Critics have asked the government to reform the judicial system to make sure it is independent,” he said.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had condemned groups behind the Kratie land revolt in a nationally-televised speech two weeks ago and rights groups say authorities brought cases against Bun Ratha and rights activists Mam Sonando and Chan Soveth soon afterwards.
Last week, a municipal court in Phnom Penh summoned Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) activist Chan Soveth to answer charges that he illegally aided Bun Ratha in Broma village in violation of Article 544 of the Penal Code. If convicted, he faces one to three years imprisonment and a fine of U.S. $500 to U.S. $1,500.
Association of Democrats leader Mam Sonando was recently arrested and accused of sparking the land revolt and the ensuing clashes in Broma village. He faces 30 years imprisonment if convicted on all charges.
Am Sam Ath said Bun Ratha’s interview with RFA might prove beneficial for the defense of the two other activists.
Reported by Sek Bandit for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.