Provincial police in Ratanakkiri are seeking terrorism charges against a human rights activist who is the subject of high-level antagonism due to his work in land disputes.
The rights group Adhoc said on Thursday that it had already withdrawn provincial coordinator Pen Bonnar and another Ratanakkiri activist from the province, but denied that this was done at the suggestion of Judge Thor Saran, who had advised that Mr Bonnar leave the province and therefore the court’s jurisdiction in order to avoid pending incitement charges.
Judge Saran said Friday that police have now asked the provincial court to charge Mr Bonnar with inciting terrorism as a result of a confrontation in November between ethnic minority land protesters and police.
“Police have already filed it and the prosecutor already accepted [a complaint] of incitement to commit terrorism,” the judge said by telephone, adding that the court has yet to rule on the complaint.
However, both provincial prosecutors at the Ratanakkiri court, Provincial Police Chief Ray Rai and his deputy Phen Dina on Friday all denied any knowledge of the terrorism complaint and Mr Bonnar said that he also doubted the existence of the latest charge against him.
It was also unclear under which provision of Cambodia’s 2007 counterterrorism law authorities could charge Mr Bonnar. Drafted by Australian authorities with British support, the law provides penalties for crimes involving diplomats, nuclear fissile materials, transportation infrastructure, explosives and offshore oil platforms.
The incident cited by the judge relates to events on Nov 27, 2008, when some 40 ethnic Tampuon villagers scuffled with 20 armed police at the courthouse in Banlung after police sought to detain two men involved in a four-year-old land dispute with the powerful developer DM Group, which is operating a rubber plantation on 200 hectares of contested land which 30 families say is their ancestral property.
The brawl left one villager and two policemen with minor injuries in an incident that Judge Saran said Mr Bonnar had orchestrated in an attempt to spring two men wanted for arrest in the land dispute.
“Villagers numbering about 20 to 30 came to the court because Adhoc told them to protest over the land dispute. They broke the handcuffs and ran away,” the judge said by telephone.
Ratanakkiri, a poor, fertile and remote province, has been the scene of multiplying land disputes in which private developers have proven powerful and the courts have resisted expeditious action in settling cases. Mr Bonnar has been at the forefront of community activism there for years.
Mr Bonnar said by telephone on Friday that he had learned of the new reported complaint against him from the Khmer-language newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea Daily and suggested that the purported complaint of instigating terrorism was in fact the judge’s attempt to intimidate him further.
“He may have just made it up to suit his own interests,” said Mr Bonnar, adding that terrorism charges were incongruous with the events that took place last year.
Mr Bonnar said that he had told the villagers to protest at the court but had not told them to be violent.
“I don’t understand how it was terrorism,” Mr Bonnar said.
“It’s just a pretext. Everything is a pretext. I am sorry that [the villagers] caused violence. It was one moment that they became angry and they used violence,” he said of the incident.
Mr Bonnar has been removed from Ratankkiri province, where he worked for over a decade, by Adhoc and has been reassigned to Svay Rieng province.