Do-gooder or Lawbreaker? Court Hears Case of Unlicensed Construction
The Koh Kong provincial court held hearings yesterday in the case of a representative of the Chong ethnic minority accused of constructing a building without a license. The accused, 36-year-old Ven Vorn, said he had the governor’s approval to erect an administrative office and classroom, but the district forest administration last October filed a complaint accusing him of doing so without permission.
Rights advocates from the province, meanwhile, have said that politics may be the real motivation behind the trial. Kong Chet, coordinator for human rights organization Licadho in Koh Kong, said that the district governor pushed through the prosecution as revenge against Mr. Vorn for leading a protest against a nearby hydropower dam.
Mr. Vorn was arrested last October after purchasing eight cubic meters of wood from locals to build an office in Ain Chrok Russei village. He said the administrative building was intended to handle increasing tourism to the Areng region and serve as an office for the community.
The chief of the district forestry administration, Om Mothakry, filed a complaint accusing Mr. Vorn of purchasing timber to construct a building without a license, but Mr. Vorn has maintained that he was given permission to buy the timber from locals. “I already asked the district governor, and he allowed me to construct such buildings,” he said. “I beg the court to release me.”
This is not the first time the community where Mr. Vorn built the office has clashed with the government. Three community members were arrested last year after joining protests organized by the NGO Mother Nature against sand dredging, and remain in prison.
In yesterday’s hearing, provincial deputy prosecutor Oung Tray asked the court to drop the charges of concealing evidence. “He didn’t have the intention to conceal this evidence,” he said, “because the evidence was not moved, it was just used to construct a building.” The charge of building without permission still stands, however. Judge Ang Chinda said the court will issue the verdict on March 3.
Mr. Vorn’s defense lawyer, Ith Mathura, insisted that Mr. Vorn had purchased the timber with the governor’s permission in an effort to help the community. “My client had all the necessary permissions to construct the building,” she said.
Chet agreed that Mr. Vorn was within his rights to construct the building. “What he did was to serve the common interest, and with the right permissions,” he said.
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