Ven Vorn, a land rights activist from Koh Kong province who has regularly protested alongside environmental NGO Mother Nature against a proposed hydropower dam in the Areng Valley was on Wednesday jailed on charges of illegal logging, his lawyer and a court official said.
Investigating Judge Min Makara said that Mr. Vorn, 36, a member of the ethnic Chong community in Thma Baing district, was placed in provisional detention after being questioned at the court Wednesday morning.
“Mr. Vorn was detained at about 12 p.m. and he was sent to detention at the provincial prison,” the judge said, declining to discuss the case further.
Bou Bunhang, chief prosecutor at the court, could not be reached.
On April 3, Mr. Vorn was questioned by Mr. Bunhang following a complaint filed by the Forestry Administration accusing him of illegally logging wood to build a community center in the Areng Valley’s Chumnap commune and then ignoring orders to halt construction—an accusation the activist denied.
According to Mr. Vorn’s lawyer, Hong Chan Sokha, his client was charged Wednesday under Article 98 of the Forestry Law— which covers the unauthorized “harvesting [of] forest products and by-products” and carries a maximum prison sentence of five years. Mr. Vorn was also charged under Article 533 of the criminal code, which concerns “destroying, displacing or removing of any object from the scene of a felony” and prescribes a maximum jail term of three years, he said.
Mr. Chan Sokha said the charges were unfounded, and that his client was likely jailed for his activism.
“Community people have the right to use forest materials for building houses without needing permission letters from the Forestry Administration,” Mr. Chan Sokha said, adding that the unfinished community center was intended to be used to educate visitors about the area’s flora and fauna, and to train locals to use computers.
“I think this was a trick of the court because they used the excuse of collecting wood to detain my client, but I think that participating in protests was the [real] reason,” he said.
In Kongchit, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, who was detained alongside Mr. Vorn following a protest outside the provincial court on September 2, said the charges against the activist were intended to “break his spirit.”
Mother Nature co-founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported from Cambodia in February, Wednesday described Mr. Vorn as a leading local ally in Mother Nature’s fight against the proposed Stung Cheay Areng Dam.
“He had become, in the twisted eyes of the ‘authorities,’ too effective at telling local people in the valley what their rights were and was not afraid to show them how to defend these,” he said in an email.