Prey Lang Activist Appeal to be Heard

May Titthara / Khmer Times No Comments Share:

More than five years after being convicted of “intentionally causing damage” at a cassava plantation in Kampong Thom province, nine community activists will have their appeal heard by the Supreme Court on September 9, confident it will overturn what they claim were false charges.
 
In 2011, a group of villagers in Sandaan district’s Svay Chorm village went to protest at a recently cleared plot of land in the Prey Lang forest owned by businessman Oul Ratha, attempting to stop him planting cassava by blocking machinery, community representative Chheang Vuthy told Khmer Times.
 
Mr. Vuthy, one of the nine in the case, said nothing had been destroyed in the protest and claimed Mr. Ratha had conspired with local police to make a false complaint.
 
“What I did was to protect the community forest only. Oul Ratha came to destroy the forest and take our community land for farming, so the community took it upon ourselves to stop him. I wouldn’t have had to go if he did not take our land,” he said.
 
“Those who destroyed the forest won the case, while we who were protecting our forests lost. We want to find justice for us as a community and to continue to protect the forest.”
 
The initial verdict, handed down by the Kampong Thom Provincial Court, sentenced the nine defendants to one year in jail and fined them one million riel (about $250) each. However, the sentence was suspended and they have been living in the village, farming and attempting to protect what is left of their community forests.
 
Mr. Vuthy said that none of the nine paid the fine, because they cannot afford such an amount and because they were confident of winning their appeal.
 
He named his fellow defendants as Hen Hay, Sao Korn, Meas Voarn, Meas Kreung, Mao Thea, Duong Chay, Nuon Kin and Prum Suy.
 
Svay Chorm village chief Mao Thea, one of the defendants, could not recall the dates of the initial trial and the subsequent unsuccessful appeal, but said given the number of recent court decisions in favor of local communities, he was sure the Supreme Court would do the same.
 
“What made us feel frustrated was that we didn’t do anything wrong, but we were still charged,” he said.
 
The prosecutor in the case, Chum Somban, could not be reached for comment, but he wrote in the summons issued on August 16 that “the accused has the right to defend themselves or use a defense lawyer. And bring any documents related in the case above if they have.”
 
Ouch Leng, president of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force which monitors deforestation in Cambodia, said that historically courts in the Kingdom had usually sided with wealthy wood dealers and land owners.
 
He was critical of the police in this case and was not optimistic about the chances for a successful appeal.
 
“The court didn’t conduct a proper investigation into the matter and just accepted the false reports from local police,” he said.
 
“It shows that the court belongs to big business people.”

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