Anti-Dam Activist Denies Illegal Logging Charge at Trial

On trial at the Koh Kong Pro­vin­cial Court on Wednesday, anti-dam ac­tivist Ven Vorn denied the illegal logging charge laid against him last year over his involvement in the construction of a wooden community center, his lawyer said.

In October, Mr. Vorn was ar­rested and charged with illegal log­ging, which carries a prison sentence of up to five years, over wood he used to help build the com­mu­nity center for his village in the Areng Valley. Rights groups have ac­cused the state of suing Mr. Vorn because he had joined sev­eral protests against a government-backed plan to dam the valley for a hy­dropower project.

Mr. Vorn was also charged with de­stroying criminal evidence. But af­ter Wednesday’s trial, dep­uty prosecutor Ou Tray said he had requested that the charge be dropped.

“I asked the presiding judge to drop one charge against Mr. Ven Vorn because I think the [evidence] is not enough to accuse him. But we should keep the charge of collecting forest products,” he said, declining to comment further.

Mr. Vorn’s lawyer, Ith Ma­thou­ra, said that during the trial her client denied logging the wood that was used to build the community center.

“He explained to the court that he did not cut the trees in the protected forest; he just bought the wood from someone else,” she said.

But even if he had, Ms. Ma­thoura said, ethnic Chong villagers in the area were legally permitted to use the surrounding protected forest for their personal needs.

“He built a house for the use of the minority people in the community, so he is not required to get per­mission from authorities,” she said.

In Kongchit, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, who attended the trial, said Mr. Vorn told the court that he had been in a hurry to build the community center to serve the rapidly growing number of tourists visiting the valley, and turned to an un­licensed seller.

“Mr. Ven Vorn told the presiding judge that he bought the wood from a dealer because the area did not have a place that sold wood legally, so he bought the wood from someone else be­cause he had to buy the wood quick­ly to build the community cen­ter,” he said.

According to Mr. Kongchit, Mr. Vorn also said that Thma Baing dis­trict authorities approved the con­struction of the center but had no documents to prove it.

Presiding Judge Ang Chanda said he would announce a verdict on March 3.

In the year leading up to his arrest, Mr. Vorn was an outspoken critic of the proposed Stung Cheay Areng dam—which would flood much of the valley and force hundreds of Chong families to leave their ancestral home—and joined many protests organized by the NGO Mother Nature.

The government has accused Mother Nature of using illegal tac­tics to oppose both the dam and sand dredging in Koh Kong. The NGO’s co-founder, Spanish na­tional Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, was deported a year ago after the government refused to renew his visa because of an unauthorized checkpoint he helped set up along a road leading to the Areng Valley.

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