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UN Rep Investigates Land Dispute

A UN official visits the site of a land dispute as part of his inquiry into human rights in Cambodia.
Surya Subedi talks with Hun Sen (L) in Phnom Penh, Jan 19, 2010.
A United Nations human rights representative visited a Cambodian
village community embroiled in a land dispute on Friday as part of a
fact-finding mission for a set of wider reforms he is recommending to
the country’s leadership.

The visit by Surya Subedi, the U.N.
special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, came on the fourth day
of a 10-day trip to the country, and followed a meeting with Prime
Minister Hun Sen where he expressed concerns about the country’s court
system and a new law on nongovernmental organizations.

Subedi
told RFA that it is important to take the complaints of Cambodia’s
rural population into consideration in addition to speaking with
high-level officials while forming an overview of the country’s human
rights situation.

“I wanted to speak to people from all walks of
life in Cambodia, and I wanted to see the villagers for myself to
listen to them directly—their grievances—and then see for myself the
area where they are living now and the conditions there as well. This
is purely a fact-finding mission and … [for] information gathering,”
Subedi said.

He traveled to the site, in central Kompong Chhnang
province, to investigate a land dispute case in which NGO worker, who
represented the villagers, had been jailed. The dispute was with a
company owned by Lauk Chumteav Chea Kheng, the wife of Cambodia’s
mining minister.

Land grab

Sam Chankea was
convicted in January of “defamation” against KDC International Co.
after he told RFA in a 2009 interview that the company had committed an
“act of violation” when it confiscated land from the villagers, because
the provincial court had yet to rule on the disputed property.

The
dispute dates back to 2002 when KDC International took possession of
some 184 hectares (455 acres) of land from more than 100 families in
the area.

“I now have a much better idea and information about the plight of the villagers and the disputed land,” Subedi said.

“I
will try to speak to government authorities about what they have been
doing about this dispute and what the response of the other party has
been and what other avenues there are to look after the interests of
the villagers,” he said.

“I will consider whether I will need to
intervene at certain levels of government authorities, and if I decide
to do so, I will not hesitate to do so.”

Subedi said that he had
a number of meetings scheduled with various ministers and that he
planned to use the Pursat land case as an example of how the government
must work to improve its human rights record.

Fact-finding meetings

In
addition to meeting with the prime minister, Subedi has been busy since
arriving in Cambodia on his fourth mission for the U.N., meeting with
officials from the ruling party and from the opposition, observing
trials, and speaking with NGOs.

On Wednesday, the special
rapporteur met with Thun Saray, director of the Cambodian Human Rights
and Development Association (ADHOC) to discuss the concerns of domestic
NGOs operating in the country.

“The problems include a land
crisis that adversely affects the people. We propose a swift and
satisfactory solution for those who have been affected by the land
conflict,” Thun Saray said in an interview recounting their
conversation.

The land issue in Cambodia dates from the 1975-79
Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and
relocations throughout the country.

This was followed by mass
confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities
when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.

Housing Cambodia’s large, young, and overwhelmingly poor population has posed a major problem ever since.

Judicial reform

Thun Saray also advised Subedi that Cambodia’s notoriously ineffective judicial system is in dire need of restructuring.

“The
justice system should be reformed. We all see the shortcomings and
flaws in the system. The reform should start by looking into the flaws
point by point. For example, the flaws happen in the process of trials
and court proceedings which result in unjust rulings,” he said.

“The
public is unsatisfied with the current process of court trials. We have
to look, investigate these shortcomings, and fix them.”

More
than one-quarter of Cambodian court defendants reported being tortured
or coerced into confession, and ordinary people said they lack faith in
the justice system, according to a 2009 judicial review released by
Cambodian anti-corruption organization The Center for Social
Development.

Poor training of the judiciary, bribery, torture,
underfunding, a lack of independence, and frequent pre-trial detention
of prisoners for terms exceeding the legal limit of six months are
among problems with the judiciary often cited by rights organizations.

At
the end of his last visit in June, Subedi said the judiciary faced
“tremendous challenges in delivering justice for the people of the
country, especially the poor and marginalized,” adding that some judges
were simply not interested in upholding the law.

NGO law

Thun
Saray also discussed a controversial draft law put forth by Cambodia’s
National Assembly which would severely curtail the ability of foreign
and domestic NGOs operating in the country to carry out their work.

Last
month a U.S. State Department spokesman said the United States had
“serious concerns about the law as drafted and strongly opposes the
enactment of any law that would constrain the legitimate activities of
NGOs.”

The State Department urged Phnom Penh to consult with
NGOs on the substance of the draft law and to “reconsider whether such
a measure is even necessary.”

Cambodia’s government has long had an antagonistic relationship with human rights groups and NGOs operating in the country.

Last
year, Hun Sen said he wanted the U.N. human rights office in Cambodia
closed and its representative, Christophe Peschoux, sacked.

Subedi
is expected to hold a press conference in Phnom Penh on Feb. 24 during
which he will review some of the key issues raised during his visit
before compiling a report for the United Nations.

He last presented his findings to the U.N. in September 2010.

Reported by Pon Bun Song and Khe Sonorng for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Vuthy Huot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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