The Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for local human rights group Adhoc has been removed from his post following a recommendation from a judge that the outspoken activist leave the province or face court action for alleged incitement, officials at the organization said on Thursday.
The decision to remove Pen Bonnar comes shortly after provincial court Judge Thor Saran advised Adhoc on Tuesday that they should pull their activist from Ratanakkiri to prevent him from being charged with incitement in connection with a land dispute in Lumphat district involving a well-connected private company and ethnic minority villagers.
Mr Bonnar, who has lived in Ratanakkiri for over a decade, will continue to work for Adhoc but in his native Svay Rieng province, said Chan Soveth, chief of Adhoc’s monitoring section.
Adhoc also transferred Ratanakkiri-based activist Chhai Ty, who is also being investigated for alleged incitement over his role in the land dispute between the DM Group and ethnic Banong villagers, said Mr Soveth, adding that Mr Ty will now work at the rights group’s office in Mondolkiri province while current Mondolkiri coordinator Sam Sarin will be taking over the Ratanakkiri office.
Mr Soveth denied that the decision to remove Mr Bonnar and Mr Ty was the result of the judge’s advice or to avoid court charges, saying that it was part of a nationwide rotation of Adhoc staff.
“The removal is not connected to the court’s advice and it doesn’t mean Mr Bonnar has done anything wrong. But Adhoc has applied the rotation policy and therefore the removal of Mr Bonnar is part of the rotation step,” he said.
Adhoc will now employ a gentler approach to the work of human rights monitoring in Ratanakkiri and cooperate more with local authorities and the government, Mr Soveth continued.
“The key direction of Adhoc is to change its tactics, to soften its characteristics in order to cooperate with local authorities and government,” he said.
Judge Saran said Wednesday that he had advised Adhoc to remove Mr Bonnar to put an end to the incitement allegations because if Mr Bonnar were outside the province he would be beyond the court’s jurisdiction.
Reached by telephone Thursday, Judge Saran said that Adhoc had made the right decision to remove the two activists, but he added that the investigation in to the incitement allegation as well as a defamation lawsuit filed against Mr Bonnar over one year ago will continue.
“He is a suspect involved in serious crimes so it doesn’t matter where he is,” the judge said of Mr Bonnar.
During his 10-plus years as Adhoc’s coordinator in Ratanakkiri, Mr Bonnar has been a fearless and outspoken critic of illegal logging, land grabbing and human rights violations in the province. Over the years Mr Bonnar has received several death threats, has been detained by authorities while attempting to protect asylum seekers and in November 2006 a sports utility vehicle tried to run him off the road.
He was called to questioning last week together with Mr Ty over incitement allegations brought by Judge Saran over their alleged involvement in a long-standing and sometimes violent land dispute between 50 ethnic Banong families and the DM Group. Both rights activists have said that the allegations are without merit, and that they did nothing more than investigate complaints filed with Adhoc by the families who claim the private firm has taken their land.
Villagers in Ratanakkiri province said Thursday that the removal of the two activists was a huge blow to the many communities they had helped.
Sev Khem, a representative for ethnic minority villagers who are tied up in a long-running land dispute with Keat Kolney, the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, said that the decision to remove both Mr Bonnar and Mr Ty would make life harder for the province’s ethnic minorities who are fighting to save illegal encroachment on their ancestral lands.
“We are very sorry that they have been removed…[they] always helped and thought of the villagers interests even though sometimes their lives were at risk,” she said.
“[Mr Bonnar] sacrificed his life to help villagers,” she continued.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Mr Bonnar said he had heard he would be moved to Svay Rieng province and that he agreed with the decision, but he reiterated that the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court’s allegations were unjust and should not have been used to force him from the province.
“Of course it is completely unjust for me to face these allegations of incitement…. [But] to be removed is better than losing a chance to serve society,” Mr Bonnar said, adding that he would still continue to help people in Ratanakkiri via telephone or Internet.
Other human rights groups contacted said they would not comment on Adhoc’s decision to remove Mr Bonnar, but that they were surprised by the judge’s suggestion that the well-respected human rights worker should leave the province if he wanted to avoid being prosecuted.
“From our point of view the accusations are groundless, and I think we are extremely surprised that the court would encourage or make comments about staff movement,” said Naly Pilorge, director for local rights group Licadho.
A person cannot simply move out of a province to avoid charges, said Sok Sam Oeun, director of Cambodian Defenders Project.
“I heard that the judge asked Adhoc to remove him from the province. It means that it is personal and that the judge doesn’t like him personally and it is not a legal issue,” Mr Sam Oeun said.
(Additional reporting by Cajsa Collin)