The Interior Ministry on Tuesday threatened to suspend or dissolve an environmental protection NGO whose staff members have been charged with using their positions to extort money from fishermen on the Tonle Sap river, realizing one of the fears rights groups have had about a controversial NGO law that took effect in August.
Four employees of the Natural Resources Prevention and Development Organization are currently being detained by police in Siem Reap province after they were arrested Saturday for confiscating fishing gear from a lone angler on a boat and demanding cash for its return, according to police.
Chhan Chansopheak, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s general department of administration, said on Tuesday that the entire NGO would be held accountable for their actions.
“We are now waiting for a report from authorities, and the Interior Ministry will take action. Either we delete the name of this organization from the list [of registered NGOs] or suspend its activities temporarily,” he said.
The alleged offenders—Khan Sokhem, 43; Khan Touch, 48; Chhim Chhing, 38; and Lim Savuth, 52—were arrested Saturday after a fisherman complained that they had approached his boat in Chi Kreng district, pulled up his fishing nets and demanded cash, according to district police chief Touch Sakal.
The four were dressed in khaki uniforms, similar to those worn by Fisheries Administration officers, and matched descriptions given previously to police by fishermen claiming to have been similarly extorted.
“The fisherman told us that the four people took his fishing nets and demanded $100. They threatened to destroy the fishing nets if the fisherman refused to give them the money,” he said. “The four people have been reported for extorting money from the fishermen for a long time, but they always escaped before our forces arrived at the scene.”
On this occasion, however, after receiving the complaint from victim Horm Ny via his village chief, military police found the four at the scene in Anlong Samnor commune, said Mr. Sakal, adding that the offenders had been handed over to provincial police on Sunday.
Thin Chandareth, head of the provincial police’s minor crimes bureau, said the case had been forwarded to the provincial court on Monday and that the four men were provisionally charged the same day with extortion by prosecutor Keut Vannareth.
Mr. Vannareth confirmed the provisional charges but declined to answer further questions.
Kinh Voeut, executive director of the Natural Resource Prevention and Development Organization, confirmed on Tuesday that the four alleged extorters were employees of his but said that he was not aware of their arrest.
Two of the men, Mr. Sokhem and Mr. Touch, are supposed to be stationed in Battambang province, he said, while the other two were based in Kompong Thom province.
“I do not know why they moved to Siem Reap province,” Mr. Voeut said, adding that he had never received any complaints of extortion against them or any other employees.
Asked about the fate of his organization, which stands to be closed down if the four are found guilty by the court, the director said he would write a letter to the Interior Ministry asking that the whole organization not be punished for the actions of a few.
“The Interior Ministry is not able to shut down the organization because this organization did nothing wrong,” he said. “We also did not order the four people to commit extortion.”
If his staff are deemed innocent, he said he would launch a defamation suit against the plaintiff, who he said had “attempted to destroy the honor of my organization.”
Rights groups fear that the government will use the new NGO law to take politically motivated punitive action against groups doing legitimate work. Among their central complaints has been the law’s failure to protect an NGO from collective punishment for the actions of individual employees or members.