The Svay Rieng Provincial Court has sentenced three community activists to five years in jail for clearing trees on state land claimed by several dozen local farmers.
Judge Horm Meng Se said that the three brothers—Suon Seiha, 30; Suon Hongly, 44; and Suon Hou, 40—were convicted last Wednesday of clearing forest without permission.
“We already sentenced them to five years each,” he said.
The judge said he had yet to issue an arrest warrant for the brothers—who are free on bail —because they had 30 days to appeal, and declined to comment further.
The dispute dates back to 2008, when the brothers began a campaign to prevent the Forestry Administration from planting acacia trees on a 71-hectare plot of land that a group of 86 families claim to have been farming since 1979. In 2012, the administration filed a legal complaint against the trio for inciting the farmers to cut down the trees.
While some of the farmers did cut down some of the trees, the brothers deny taking part or encouraging others to do so.
On Monday, Mr. Seiha, the youngest brother, said he missed the court’s announcement of its decision last week because he had misheard the judge during his trial earlier this month and was informed of the sentence by his lawyer Monday evening.
“I think this verdict is an injustice and is meant to threaten our people in the commune so that they stop protesting against the authorities,” he said.
“The judge did not investigate the case in depth. The Forestry Administration grabbed our land in 2008, yet the court convicted us. I think this is meant to break the spirit of the poor people who struggle for justice.”
Mr. Seiha said he was on his way to Phnom Penh to discuss an appeal.
Sam Sokunthea, who represents two of the brothers, said their appeal would be filed some time next week.
“My clients do not accept the court’s decision because they claim they did not do anything wrong, so we will appeal the verdict,” she said. “They say they did not clear forest belonging to the Forestry Administration. They are innocent people.”
Nouth Bophinnaroath, Svay Rieng provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, which provided the brothers with their lawyer, said he, too, was disappointed with the court’s decision.
“The court’s decision to sentence them to five years is very serious,” he said. “There were no witnesses who said those three men cut down those acacia trees.”
According to some of the farmers involved in the dispute, district and commune police attempted to prevent them from traveling to protest outside the provincial court on the trial day two weeks ago by setting up a roadblock.
They say they managed to make it to the court by abandoning their vehicles and catching taxis. Authorities denied making any attempt to stop them.