Local human rights organization Adhoc on Friday filed a lawsuit in Koh Kong province, charging that the environmental organization WildAid and government officials violated the civil rights of an Adhoc activist and destroyed private property, an attorney for the group said Sunday.
The lawsuit is the result of allegations Adhoc made Wednesday against WildAid: that a forestry patrol team, which included WildAid staff, briefly detained Tan Sokhom, an Adhoc activist, and destroyed film in her camera after she attempted to photograph a confrontation between villagers and the patrol on May 22.
Adhoc also accused the group of about 10 individuals of having burned down three dwellings in Mondol Seima district’s Koh Por village on May 20, after claiming the structures were located inside a protected area.
“Our activist was handcuffed and held for 20 to 30 minutes without cause, and they continued to hold her even though she told them she was an activist for Adhoc,” said lawyer Chhe Vibol, adding that he was seeking $2,000 in compensation.
The suit also charges that the destroyed photos would have shown foreign WildAid staff threatening villagers in Bak Khlang commune while military police trained assault rifles on more than 50 protesters, he said. Forestry Administration Director Ty Sokhun could not be reached Sunday.
WildAid Country Director Suwanna Gauntlett declined to comment Sunday. However, in a written response sent Thursday evening, she said that the torched structures were housing workers for an illegal timber and charcoal operation, and that the incidents in question occurred not in Koh Por but 2 km to the north, inside protected forest.
“Destroying working huts is necessary because they are used by illegal operators manufacturing charcoal on an industrial basis and logging the rainforest on state forests,” Gauntlett wrote.
“We are not talking about poor villagers that just survive on subsistence hunting. These people work for logging and charcoal wholesalers,” she claimed.
Koh Kong province Deputy Governor Em Simyon, who heads a committee formed to investigate the matter, confirmed much of Gauntlett’s account Sunday.
“They were not real homes but were constructed for keeping firewood, logs and for charcoal operations,” he claimed.
“Businesspeople encourage these villagers to make illegal logging and charcoal kilns. Those 52 families really live inside the protected areas,” he added. “There could be a dozen business people behind such operations.”
Em Simyon also claimed that villagers had admitted to trying to pour gasoline on a WildAid staff member in retaliation for WildAid having burned down their homes.
Chhe Vibol defended Adhoc’s work on the issue. “Adhoc is not defending illegal logging or charcoal operations,” he said.