February 01, 2009

Lawyers Continue to Defend Villagers in Cambodian Land Case

February 2009

The Public Interest Legal Advocacy Project (PILAP) team’s perseverance and commitment to the Kong Yu land case continues to set the standard for land rights advocacy in Cambodia. The case arises from a purportedly illegal transfer of 450 hectares of indigenous peoples’ land from ethnic Jari villagers in OÝadou district to Keat Kolney, Senior Minister Keat Chhun’s sister. The PILAP team worked with villagers to file civil and criminal complaints in January 2007.

The road has not been easy. The PILAP lawyers have received threats to their personal safety, have been accused of criminally inciting the villagers to bring the legal action, and were subjected to investigation by the bar association in 2007. Nonetheless, in 2008, they continued to push the case, with some significant achievements. The team produced a cultural report to be used as legal evidence of the Kong Yu villagers’ indigenous status. They also produced and submitted to the court an exhaustive memo detailing all legal matters in the case. A major grassroots initiative that included representatives from some 24 communities across 15 provinces visited the site to show solidarity and to provide support to the Kong Yu and Kong Thom villagers. The event coincided with Judge Ya Narin’s, the former case judge’s, visit.

Later the PILAP lawyers filed a motion to remove Judge Ya Narin from the case, citing various instances of failure to fulfill his obligations of diligence and impartiality, and failure to resolve the dispute in accordance with law. The motion led to the removal of the judge in September 2008. The lawyers also presented the details of the case to members of the National Assembly and successfully compelled the new judge to issue an injunction order to the Keat Kolney company to stop further land-clearing. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees participated in the serving of the order, which has not been implemented properly.

The case remains as challenging as ever. While pressing the court to proceed with the case according to legal procedure, the PILAP team is working to strengthen the community for continued struggle as the case enters its third year. ABA ROLI works with the Community Legal Education Center, a local non-governmental organization (NGO), to support the PILAP project, which aims to use the legal system to assert and protect citizens’ rights and to encourage government and private sector transparency and accountability. ABA ROLI in Cambodia works as a subgrantee to the East-West Management Institute under the second phase of the United States Agency for International Development-funded program on rights and justice.

To learn more about our work in Cambodia, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at <rol@staff.abanet.org>.