Five Ratanakkiri province ethnic minority villagers accused of confiscating a chainsaw and timber from men felling trees near their village were ordered to return the wood and machinery to the loggers last week, villagers and officials said Wednesday.
The Prov hilltribesmen also allege that Ratanakkiri Provincial Court Director Yar Narin, who has been named as a Khmer Rouge tribunal Supreme Court Chamber Judge, threatened them with detention if they did not hand over the timber and chainsaw they confiscated last year.
“Yar Narin accused us of confiscating other people’s property illegally,” 32-year-old Bang Ka Toeng said of their May 3 meeting.
“Yar Narin added that if we were not minorities we would stay in prison for our whole lives and have no chance of getting out,” Bang Ka Toeng said.
Yar Narin could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but court Prosecutor Mey Sokhan defended Yar Narin’s actions, explaining that the statements were not real threats, but words used to persuade the villagers to hand over the chainsaw and wood.
“I know what Yar Narin was saying was just to make them understand and agree to hand over the timber and chainsaw,” Mey Sokhan said.
“If he speaks simply…they—the minorities—would not listen.”
Touch Hoeurn, who the villagers accuse of illegal logging, sent a complaint to the court asking for the return of his chainsaw and 3.5 cubic meters of timber, Mey Sokhan said. He added that Touch Hoeurn had a letter from local officials authorizing the logging of trees for home construction in the Prov villagers’ area.
But the Prov villagers allege that the court has failed to accept their evidence or hear their side of the story, which included claims that Touch Hoeurn had cut more wood than was necessary for a house. Instead, they say, the court began questioning Prov villagers in August about their allegedly illegal confiscation.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights groups Adhoc, said the incident is part of an ongoing pattern of blame reversal in Ratanakkiri.
“There are more and more cases like this,” Pen Bonnar said. “The conservationists become the accused.”