Kampong Speu Provincial Court on Tuesday temporarily released So Sarim, the self-proclaimed okhna who allegedly refused to repay money belonging to villagers who sold their land through him, on condition that he must find ways to pay off his debt.
Sarim was detained on February 7 and was interrogated last week by an investigating judge.
Samrith Suon Vanroth, one of the villagers who is believed to have been duped by Sarim, filed a lawsuit against him in a case involving the purchase of 103,360sqm of land in Oudong district with no money paid by the accused.
On February 1, deputy prosecutor Khai Samphors issued a summons “ordering the authorities to bring So Sarim, male, 41, Khmer national, to the provincial court before February 21, 2019, in response to the claims of ‘breach of trust’, in Romlech village and Dara village, Preah Sre commune, Oudong district on June 8, 2018”.
Both Samphors and Ou Phat, another deputy prosecutor, could not be reached for additional comments on Tuesday. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the court – Sorn Vireak – declined to provide a statement.
Provincial deputy police chief Nhem Sao said he had obtained information about the release but that he was unaware of the procedure.
“All I know is that Sarim has been released. I don’t know whether the release was on bail,” he said.
Previously, Sao had said that Sarim was known by people in their villages as an oknha, which roughly translates to “tycoon”, and a land broker who purchases land from many villagers.
He also said Sarim kept promising the villagers that he would solve their problems immediately. Feeling they have been duped multiple times, the villagers decided to file a complaint at the Kampong Speu provincial court.
According to Swift News, Suon Vanroth said Sarim had partially returned the money belonging to the former and other villagers. Therefore, the online news outlet added, the court decided to release Sarim for two months, allowing him some time to find ways to pay off his debt to the villagers.
Rath Thavy, the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said cases of land brokers cheating the villagers by claiming themselves as okhna happened a lot.
“The villagers trusted the brokers easily, especially after seeing the latter in nice attire,” he said.
“Oknha” is an honorific title that is often conferred on elites in Cambodian society. To receive the coveted title, a request had to be approved by the Council of Ministers, then the prime minister and then signed by the King.
Prior to 2017, a minimum investment of $100,000 was required for a businessperson to be bestowed the “honorific”. But after a new sub-decree was signed on March 20, 2017, the figure increased to $500,000.
According to estimates, at least 700 people held the title in 2017, compared to about five before 1975.