A prominent anti-dam activist in Koh Kong province who has been jailed since October was convicted Thursday of illegal logging and given a suspended prison sentence, allowing him to walk free but leaving the shadow of a criminal conviction hanging over him.
The decision marked the first conviction of an activist affiliated with the group Mother Nature, which has been a thorn in the side of the government for the past two years due to its provocative and eye-catching protests against the impending construction of a hydropower dam in Koh Kong’s Areng Valley.
The convicted man, Ven Vorn, is a leader of a local Chong minority community that has been working with Mother Nature to agitate against the dam. He was arrested on October 7 and charged with illegal logging and destroying evidence after being accused in April of cutting wood inside a protected area to build a community center in the valley.
During his trial, Mr. Vorn argued that he had not cut the wood, but bought it from a local trader. But he said that even if he had, it would not have been illegal because members of minority groups are allowed to fell timber for personal use.
At his sentencing yesterday at the Koh Kong Provincial Court, Judge Ang Chanda dropped the destruction of evidence charge, but convicted Mr. Vorn of illegal forest product collection, according to Ou Tray, a deputy prosecutor at the court.
“The court sentenced Mr. Ven Vorn to one year, but the punishment was completely suspended,” he said. “Mr. Vorn will be released from prison this afternoon.”
Mr. Vorn was released from the provincial prison at around 4 p.m. and was met by his wife and three daughters. He said that he was happy to see his family again, but still felt that his conviction was an injustice.
“They charged me with collecting forest products without a letter of permission, but according to the law, we Chong minority people have a right to collect forestry products to build houses for our families,” he said.
Mr. Vorn said he was discussing the possibility of an appeal with his lawyer.
Although Mr. Vorn is the first Mother Nature activist to be convicted of a crime, several other of its members have pending court cases, including its high-profile co-founder, Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported in February last year after he helped set up a roadblock. Six other activists have been charged with various crimes, and three have been jailed.
Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national currently staying in Burma, said yesterday that the charges against Mr. Vorn had been trumped up in an effort to punish him for protesting against the dam. He accused the government of having orchestrated a campaign of judicial harassment in retaliation for Mother Nature’s particularly successful brand of activism.
“The charges against him were from the start a total fabrication and not the real reason he was sent to jail,” he said. “Powerful provincial players had long wanted to get back at Ven Vorn for his successful activism against the Areng hydrodam, and had started seeing him as someone who could threaten the power structuresof the province.”
He added the activist had been kept in “an extremely overcrowded cell” at the Koh Kong Provincial Prison, constituting “illegal confinement in inhumane conditions.”
Although he said that Mr. Vorn would file an appeal against his conviction, he also noted that the spate of legal cases against Mother Nature activists appeared to be an effort to keep them busy in court rather than protesting.
“To me it is crystal clear that this ongoing crackdown against our group is an attempt by vested interests (state and non-state) at breaking down our spirits and trying to eradicate the kind of effective grass-roots activism we have been doing for over two years,” he said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan vehemently denied any such campaign of intimidation, accusing Mother Nature of simply “making a noise.” He said that if the group did have a legitimate gripe, it was free to sue the government under provisions in the recently passed Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations.
“The NGO law says that the government has to facilitate or help the NGOs do their job; as well, NGOs have to respect the rule of law too,” he said. “If anyone from the government side gives a hard time to NGOs, NGOs can file a court suit and sue someone. Read that law.”
(Additional reporting by Julia Wallace)