The Koh Kong Provincial Court on Monday imprisoned three activists from environmental NGO Mother Nature after a prosecutor charged them with threatening to cause damage during their ongoing campaign against a company accused of illegally dredging in a local estuary, according to rights group Licadho.
In Kongchit, provincial coordinator for Licadho, said prosecutor Bou Bunhang charged Sim Samnang, 29; Tri Sovichea, 26; and Sun Mala, 24, with threatening destruction, which carries a maximum prison sentence of two years.
“The prosecutor handed the case to Investigating Judge Chhum Davy and the judge has now detained the three people and they were sent to the provincial prison at about 7 p.m.,” he said, adding that Licadho had assigned one of its lawyers to represent the three men.
Mr. Bunhang could not be reached last night.
Sam Sokunthea, the Licadho lawyer representing the activists, declined to comment on the charges for fear of affecting the case.
The activists were summoned for questioning by Botum Sakor district police on Friday, but all three refused to show up, saying they had not broken any laws.
Provincial police chief Sam Khitvean said Monday that the three were summoned after Direct Access—a company that was granted a license by the Mines and Energy Ministry to dredge sand in the Andoung Toek estuary—filed a complaint against them.
“The company requested that the three activists stop leading people to protest against sand dredging because it has disturbed the exploitation of the sand,” he said. “But they did not listen.”
Brigadier General Khitvean said the activists were arrested for failing to heed the court summons.
“The court summoned them for questioning, but they refused to stand at the court,” he said.
However, Sorn Chandara, another Mother Nature activist in Koh Kong, said the three were only summoned by police.
Mr. Chandara added that Mr. Sovichea and Mr. Mala—a co-founder of Mother Nature—were arrested Monday morning at a rented house in Botum Sakor.
“I saw about 40 police come with motorbikes and cars. Then they went inside the rental house and arrested our two activists,”
he said. “Police put handcuffs on the activists and pushed them into a Toyota pickup and drove away.”
Mr. Chandara said Mr. Samnang was arrested at a separate location, also in the morning.
Since April, Mother Nature activists have been working with
fishing communities to put a stop to sand dredging in the Andoung Toek estuary, which they blame for pollution, riverbank collapses and a dramatic exodus of the fish and crab populations locals rely on.
Activists and fishermen have been boarding Direct Access’ barges and ordering their crews to stop working, sometimes using fishing boats to tow the larger vessels out to sea.
Despite a 2009 ban on exporting river sand ordered by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Direct Access’ license states that the company is permitted to dredge in an area referred to as “Andong Teuk creek” for domestic supply or international export.
However, Mother Nature says that the company is dredging deeper, and in a larger area, than its license allows.
The Mines and Energy Ministry has not said where the sand is being exported to, but according to a representative of the
Singapore-based shipping firm Pacific Carriers Limited—which is chartering a ship that Direct Access has been loading sand onto—it is destined for Singapore.
Although Direct Access’ license is due to expire on Wednesday, Mines and Energy Ministry spokesman Dith Tina said last week that no decision had been made on whether it would be renewed.
Mr. Tina did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Neak Sopheap, 46, a resident of Botum Sakor district, said locals would continue to work to stop Direct Access if the company’s license was renewed.
“We will continue to protest against the sand dredging even if the authorities arrest all the Mother Nature activists,” she said.