The long-awaited trial of three environmental activists accused of threatening to damage a sand-dredging barge last year began in Koh Kong province on Monday as dozens of supporters rallied outside the courthouse.
The three activists with the Mother Nature environmental group—Sim Samnang, 29, Tri Sovichea, 26, and Sun Mala, 24—were arrested in August over their campaign to stop the dredging of Koh Kong’s rivers, which locals blame for the devastation of fish stocks. They were charged with threatening to cause damage after climbing aboard the barge operated by the company Direct Access and allegedly telling workers that they would set the vessel on fire if they did not stop.
Ou Tray, a deputy prosecutor at the Koh Kong court, said Monday’s hearing ran from 8 a.m. to 5:20 p.m. and would continue today.
“We finished questioning the accused today and we will continue questioning some witnesses tomorrow,” he said, declining to elaborate.
Presiding Judge Min Makara refused to comment.
The defendants’ lawyer, provided by rights group Licadho, could not be reached.
Licadho’s provincial coordinator, In Kongchet, said he was not allowed into the courtroom but learned that the judges also heard testimony from Direct Access representatives and Botum Sakor district authorities.
Deputy district governor Soun Sitha confirmed giving testimony on Monday.
“The court asked me if the three people climbed onto the company’s barge during the protest. I told the court that they really did climb onto the barge and destroyed the company property,” he said, declining to comment further.
Hour In, a Licadho monitor in the province, said he was at the protest in question but did not see the deputy governor there.
“I did not see Soun Sitha there. I just saw some police on the company’s barge when the protesters climbed on,” he said.
Mr. In spent the day outside the courthouse with about 100 protesters.
Also in the crowd was Neak Sopheap, who said the dredging had hampered her family’s ability to make money from fishing and welcomed Mother Nature’s attempts to stop the barges.
“We demand that the court drop the charges and release the three environmental activists because they are not guilty; they just wanted to help protect the environment,” she said.
In March, the provincial court dropped related conspiracy charges against two founders of Mother Nature, though the same charge still stands against co-founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national. Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson has remained abroad since the government deported him last year after refusing to renew his visa over his involvement in a Mother Nature campaign against a planned hydropower dam.
In a recent legal analysis of the case, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, another NGO, concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge any of the detained activists or Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson.
“[T]here is a distinct lack of evidence to support the charges against all four charged persons,” said an accompanying statement. “[T]heir unjustified prosecution and detention as a result of acts of peaceful protest is a clear breach of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”