A Cambodian court Friday released on bail two villagers jailed for protests against a forced eviction from a site marked for development in downtown Phnom Penh, their lawyer said.
Yim Sawath of the Community Legal Education Center who represents the two villagers from Boeung Kak Lake—the site of the land dispute—said that his clients had been released Friday evening on bail with certain “conditions.”
Ly Chanary, a 40-year-old woman, and Sao Saroeun, a 73-year-old man, were arrested May 24 after participating in protests in front of a municipal building over the disputed Boeung Kak Lake land they say the government gave away in concession to a private developer.
The two were charged with encroaching on private land and obstructing authority.
Yim Sawath said the judge in their case reconsidered an earlier decision to deny the two bail because of Sao Saroeun’s deteriorating health and Ly Chanary’s need to take care of her three children.
He added that the judge ordered his clients to appear before district police once a fortnight and not to change their residences during the course of the investigation while out on bail.
Yim Sawath called the court’s charges against his two clients baseless.
“There are enough documents and witnesses to prove that they didn’t commit the crime,” he said.
“I hope that the investigating judge will conduct a thorough investigation into the charges because my clients did nothing wrong.”
No date has yet been set for their trial.
Thirteen to appeal
Their arrest stemmed from a May 22 protest that led to the detention and sentencing two days later of 13 women villagers to between one year and two and a half years on similar charges. The two were arrested while joining protests against the larger group’s trial.
Cambodian authorities had asked a court to review the jailing of the 13 women on Thursday after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Cambodia to free them in talks with her counterpart Hor Namhong earlier in the week.
Hor Namhong had denied that the review was related to pressure from the U.S.
But Yim Sawath said Friday that the court was unable to release the 13 women because they had already been sentenced and that their case is pending appeal. No date has been set for the appeal hearing.
The group is being held in Prey Sar Prison while they await their hearing.
The Boeung Kak villagers are just one of many groups petitioning the government over disputes with companies they say have been granted concessions that include land they have lived on for years.
According to Licadho, the government has given away nearly 4 million hectares (15,000 square miles), or 22 percent of the country’s land area, in mining or economic land concessions, in some cases pitting residents against developers and sparking protests as in the case of Boeung Kak Lake.
About 400,000 people have been affected by the concessions, Licadho says.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Hun Sen reiterated a call he had made earlier ordering officials to return land to villagers from companies who breached their concession contracts.
The prime minister had first given the order following a May 7 subdecree he issued outlining a temporary ban on new concessions.
He also ordered the Ministry of Agriculture to penalize companies that had encroached on villagers’ land.
Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun responded Thursday, saying that officials are working in 18 provinces across the country to take back land from any companies that have had land disputes with villagers.
But land rights groups have questioned Hun Sen’s commitment to protecting the Cambodian people from illegal land grabs and forced evictions.
A group of civil societies on Friday published a purported Hun Sen directive showing that days after he ordered the Ministry of Agriculture to temporarily stop granting land concessions, he issued another directive on how to convert state land into nonpublic state land before handing it over to private companies.
Reported by Sok Serey and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.