For the two farmers at the center of the Porng Toek land case, a guilty verdict could have catastrophic for their large families. The men, one with five children, the other with four, faced from six months to two years in jail in a case that should have been a civil matter, but which like many disputes over land ownership, ended up in criminal court.
The case involved a dispute over 2.1 hectares of land between 20 families and an individual who had the backing of the district chief. The claimant charged the two farmers with trespassing and property damage, although both they and the other families had been peacefully growing rice on the land for years. Other clients were later added to the case, charged with discrediting a court decision.
The public interest law group, Vishnu, a EWMI-PRAJ grantee and partner, came to their aid to defend their interests and keep them out of jail. Three lawyers worked closely with community members, providing legal advice, collecting further evidence, and meeting with additional witnesses. They also carefully prepared the two defendants for the September 25 trial, which 100 community members attended.
Thanks to Vishnu’s strong legal advocacy and the quantity of well-grounded evidence, the Kampot Provincial Court of First Instance acquitted the two defendants and ordered that the case be resolved by the cadastral commission due to its civil nature.
“I was happy to have been able to represent the community members and help them obtain justice,” said Vishnu lawyer Sao Kagna.
The case represents a major success and even goes beyond the fact that these two men received justice. Vishnu’s lawyers succeeded in persuading the court that criminal proceedings were categorically invalid in a case where the underlying issue was the ownership of property. If this kind of litigation outcome were replicated across Cambodia, it would result in justice for many people facing criminal charges simply because they refused to yield to questionable evictions.
Improving legal aid, specifically indigent criminal defense, has been an important component of EWMI’s justice reform work in Cambodia. With this goal in mind, EWMI–PRAJ works to strengthen the capacity of Cambodia’s existing legal aid NGO providers and through its grant program assists the most vulnerable groups of people in Cambodia.