A Ratanakkiri Provincial Court judge said on Wednesday that he has advised that Pen Bonnar, the well-known provincial coordinator for local human rights group Adhoc, cease working in the province in order to put an end to allegations of incitement that the court is investigating him for.
Judge Thor Sarorn said by telephone that he had recommended to Adhoc officials that they remove Mr Bonnar from Ratanakkiri, because if he was outside the province he would be beyond the jurisdiction of the court and therefore unable to be prosecuted.
“It was an idea, but it can’t end the criminal case by having the person leave the province,” Judge Sarorn added.
“I just proposed it to the Adhoc president in Phnom Penh to consider. It is just showing a way so that it would be beyond the court’s territory, so the case could be dissolved,” he said.
Judge Sarorn said that the proposal to have Mr Bonnar leave the province where he has lived for many years had been discussed on Tuesday with several NGO workers. He added that no decision has been made yet.
“There was a discussion but no decision. We want to have a solution that is done quietly,” the judge said.
On Tuesday Judge Sarorn delayed questioning of Mr Bonnar and an Adhoc activist, Chhay Thy, over allegations of incitement related to their alleged involvement in a long-standing and acrimonious land dispute between the private land development firm DM Group, which is alleged to have powerful connections, and 50 ethnic Banong families in the province.
Adhoc President Thun Saray could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Chan Soveth, the chief of Adhoc’s monitoring section, who was among the NGO workers who met with Judge Sarorn, declined to comment directly on Judge Sarorn’s suggestion. Mr Soveth did say, however, that Adhoc was presently considering three possible options: temporarily closing their Ratanakkiri office, making some work changes, or removing Mr Bonnar from the province.
Mr Soveth added that Adhoc would also pursue “new ways” when dealing with local authorities.
“We will soften our characteristics. It doesn’t mean that we are afraid, but we will find new ways,” he said.
Mr Bonnar said on Wednesday that he was aware of the judge’s request that he leave the province, and added that he believes Judge Sarorn was acting at the behest of local authorities.
“They didn’t like our work activities. In order to succeed with their goal, they use the court system to intimidate; they use the court system to change something,” Mr Bonnar said, adding that he has been Adhoc’s provincial coordinator in Ratankkiri since 1998.
“We worked hard to prevent forest crimes but in return we just received such allegations [of incitement]. If I really have to leave this province, I am concerned about the loss of natural resources,” he said. “If there is more destruction, the Royal Government is responsible before history,” he added.
Bou Lam, a former CPP deputy provincial governor and a current member of the provincial council, said that he had heard only negative reports about the respected human right worker and denied that authorities were involved in the court’s request that Mr Bonnar leave Ratanakkiri.
“I have never known Pen Bonnar. I heard his name about bad things. I only heard about him causing problems between villagers and civil servants,” Mr Lam said, claiming that Mr Bonnar had not made any friends in the province and had not been cooperative with local authorities.
Legal Aid of Cambodia lawyer Ny Chandy, who had previously worked in Ratanakkiri for two years, said that Mr Bonnar is a hard working and fearless rights activist. He added that Mr Bonnar has tirelessly worked to investigate complaints filed by local villagers.
“Pen Bonnar worked a lot and actively, he didn’t think of his own interests but of the interests [of the people] in general,” Mr Chandy said. “What communities wanted, he was never hesitant doing it, [even] with all the barriers around him.”