Pen Bonnar, the outspoken activist who was removed by rights group Adhoc from a post in Ratanakkiri province in August after a judge told him to leave or face court action, returned on Friday to his position in Cambodia’s remote northeast, officials and the activist said.
“We have enough evidence to protect Bonnar against the incitement charge by the court,” said Adhoc President Thun Saray, who declined to provide more details. Adhoc also needs to replace the current provincial coordinator, who is sick, he said.
The decision to remove Mr Bonnar came last year after provincial Judge Thor Saran advised Adhoc to withdraw the activist to stop him from being charged with incitement in connection with a land dispute in Lumphat district involving a well-connected private company and ethnic-minority villagers.
Mr Bonnar, who has not been charged with a crime, was moved to the capital, where he continued to monitor human rights in Cambodia, he said yesterday.
“I do not feel guilty because I have never done anything wrong,” said Mr Bonnar by telephone from Ratanakkiri province. “But I feel protective of the communities.”
Mr Bonnar, who has spent more than 10 years in Ratanakkiri, and long explicitly criticized illegal logging, land grabbing and human rights violations, said he had asked Adhoc to return him to the province.
The court case involving Mr Bonnar did not appear to be dying down yesterday, with Judge Saran saying that the incitement charge is still being investigated. The court also has evidence that Mr Bonnar may be guilty of defamation and terrorism, he added.
“It is Adhoc’s decision to send him back,” he said. “For the individual issue, the court is still investigating him for the serious incitement charge of violently trespassing, seizing and destroying property belonging to the DM Group company.”
Following the rights worker’s arrival in the province Friday, Judge Saran issued summonses for four men to appear tomorrow for allegedly trespassing on the property of DM Group.
“I issued numerous warrants for those who have been released on bail but under judicial control,” he said. “These men have done wrong regarding the court order by leaving the district without informing the local authorities and especially by not presenting themselves at the police office every 15 days to report their activities.”
Sven Vev, who received his warrant on Friday, said neither he nor the other three men, all of whom had been detained in prison for a few months, would show up at court for fear of being arrested again.
“We decided not to go because we are aware that the court will pressure us to stop communicating with the rights group Adhoc, and especially to force us to withdraw the complaint against the DM group.”
Mr Bonnar was accused of incitement for his alleged involvement in a long-standing and sometimes violent land dispute between 50 ethnic Banong families and the DM Group.
He has said that the allegations are without merit, and that he did nothing more than investigate complaints filed with Adhoc by families who claimed the private firm had taken their land.
Some villagers in land disputes in Ratanakkiri have been cheered by the arrival of Mr Bonnar, whose work in the province has earned him several death threats over the years.
“I think it was the right decision to send him back here,” said community representative Romam Hil, from Pate commune in O’Yadaw district, where Banong villagers are in a legal battle with Keat Kolney, the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, over 450 hectares.
“Mr Bonnar is born to help the villagers,” he said. “He has been fearless even though he has no interests here himself.”
Kong Srun, Lumphat district governor, was welcoming but less enthusiastic in his response to the news of Mr Bonnar’s return.
“It is nice to have rights workers to help villagers,” he said. “I hope he will fulfill his work in a legal way.”
Independent observer Chea Vannath applauded Mr Bonnar for his bravery in returning, and said the development was a good sign for the country.
“Neither Adhoc nor Pen Bonnar give up,” she said. “None of them give up. They still move forward.”
Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said that what will come of Mr Bonnar’s return to the province could not be predicted.
“It’s a good sign but we will see,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Clancy McGilligan)