Court releases environmental activist, suspending remainder of his year-long term for ‘harvesting forest products without a permit’
By Lauren Crothers
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Rights groups welcomed Friday the release from prison of a Cambodian environmental activist, but condemned the court that tried him for convicting him of “forestry crimes” and suspending the remainder of his year-long term.
The Koh Kong provincial court on Thursday found Vorn Ven guilty of “harvesting forest products without a permit”.
He had been arrested and detained in October after being accused of using 10 cubic meters of illegally logged wood to build a community center in the lush Areng Valley, where a controversial hydro-dam project has been proposed.
In their statement Friday, the seven rights and environmental groups said Vorn “would have been cleared of all charges” had he received a fair trial.
“We meet the decision made by the court with mixed emotion — while the release of Mr Ven Vorn is undoubtedly welcome, he should not have been arrested and convicted in the first place,” they said.
“Convicting activists involved in high profile cases and then releasing them on suspended sentences has become an often-used tactic in Cambodia in order to criminalize legitimate activism and to keep activists under close judicial supervision.”
Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, who co-founded environmental NGO Mother Nature and was blacklisted and deported from Cambodia last year, was one of the signatories.
He told Anadolu Agency by phone Friday that Vorn is undeterred by the conviction and plans to forge ahead with his activism.
He said the remaining seven-month suspended sentence is “lingering over [Vorn’s] head, which is very good for whoever is behind the arrest, which obviously has nothing to do with the forestry crimes at all.”
Gonzalez-Davidson said powerful “cartels” in Koh Kong are clearly unhappy with Vorn’s popularity and ability to mobilize and embolden indigenous groups who are concerned for the ecological future of the area, as well as the viability of their own communities.
He said that he had spoken to Vorn by phone Friday morning and that the latter’s “plan is to move forward exactly as he has been doing”.
“He comes across as even stronger, with more conviction.”
Although he has been blacklisted from re-entering Cambodia, Gonzalez-Davidson is facing his own trial for allegedly aiding three other Mother Nature activists who were protesting a sand-dredging operation in Koh Kong.
Last month, he appealed to Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow him back in the country to contest the charges, but told Anadolu Agency Friday that he had received no response.
“My lawyer has appealed the decision by investigating judge [to send the case to trial], because they infringed on my rights… because I wasn’t called for questioning,” he said.