Seven Found Guilty of Forestry Crimes in S Reap, Fined $2,500

siem reap city – Siem Reap Pro­vincial Court yesterday convicted seven villagers of clearing state-owned forest, sentencing them each to a four-year suspended jail term as well as $2,500 in fines, ac­cording to a human rights worker and a defense lawyer.

Judge Cheu Sok also announ­ced the acquittals of seven other villagers in the case, which was brought in May by the local Fo­r­estry Administration, which al­leged that 14 villagers in Banteay Srey district’s Tbeng commune had felled trees in an area used for a reforestation project.

Eath Sivlong, a provincial rights monitor for the human rights group Licadho who attended yesterday’s hearing, said that while the decision to hand out a suspended sentence was positive, the fine would be difficult for the villagers to pay.

“I think it is good that the court decided to have the prison term suspended, but the fine is too much for villagers,” he said, adding that those found guilty could appeal if they were unhappy with the verdict.

Contacted by telephone yesterday, Judge Sok declined to elaborate on the verdict, saying he was in another court hearing.

“I read out the verdict already, finding some guilty and others not guilty,” he said.

With 100 Siem Reap province villagers having staged a protest at the court last week during trial, both convicted and acquitted defendants as well as their defense lawyer Long Lun yesterday called the court’s de­cision an injustice.

“The forest had been cleared by Fo­restry Administration officials, not villagers,” said Nith Yi, 45, who was convicted yesterday and vowed to appeal. “Although the prison term is suspended, we will never manage to pay the huge fines.”

Tea Kimsoth, chief of the Siem Reap forestry cantonment, was un­available yesterday. But Mr Lun, the defense lawyer, said his cli­ents had acknowledged during last week’s hearing they had trespassed onto state-owned forest but had never cut down any trees in the area.

More than 100 families had farmed on the 183 hectares of for­estland since 1997. However, in 2003, they agreed to stop on the condition that they be given alternative farmland. The villagers are still waiting for that promise to be seen through.

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