Five activists, including the recipient of an international prize for environmental campaigners, were released Monday after being detained for days by authorities in Cambodia’s Kratie province who accused them of documenting the destruction of a protected forest “without official permission.”
Ouch Leng—who in 2016 was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment—Heng Sros, Man Matt, Heng Run, and Tong Cheang were arrested on Feb. 5 in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, in Kratie’s Sambo district.
The five had been collecting evidence of illegal logging in an area adjacent to a concession operated by the Cambodian subsidiary of South Korea’s Think Biotech Co. Ltd., as well as ordaining trees with Buddhist saffron robes and posting educational signs urging people not to destroy the forest.
On Monday, the activists were freed from the provincial Forestry Office where they had been held after being forced to sign a document pledging to cease their activities in Prey Lang without permission from the Ministry of Environment, as well as to stop carrying GPS devices and mobile phones into Prey Lang, and to cease reporting on the status of the forest to nongovernmental organizations. Kratie’s provincial prosecutor placed the five under “judicial supervision,” without providing details.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service after their release, long-time environmental defender Heng Sros called the forest Cambodia’s “ancestral heritage” and vowed to continue his work.
“I will stop taking action to protect the forest only when the court and the Ministry of Environment can prevent the forest offenders from cutting more trees,” he said.
Last June, a survey by U.S. and EU monitors showed that Prey Lang lost more than one football pitch (1.76 acres) of woodlands every hour of 2019 despite its protected status.
Heng Sros added that, as he and his team entered Prey Lang, they witnessed scores of locally made trucks carrying logs to Think Biotech’s concession station. He said Ministry of Environment guards in Kratie province did nothing to stop the convoy, and instead detained his team.
“They stopped us arbitrarily after they knew that I took pictures of the trucks full of logs exiting Prey Lang,” he said.
“They stopped us and confined us in the Kratie Forestry Office, but they didn’t arrest or stop the people transporting the logs … There were at least 60 local-made trucks carrying wood or logs from the banned areas to sell to Think Biotech, which has run its business in the Prey Lang area for a long time.”
The activists said they were pressured into admitting they had been wrong in exchange for their freedom.
They said they knew that they were active in areas prohibited from entry by law but wanted to take photos of illegal logging and deforestation, as well as inaction by Forest Protection Officers stationed there.
In December 2019, forest and environmental activists reported that Think Biotech and another company known as Angkor Plywood Co had, for nearly a month, taken timber from illegal loggers in Prey Lang and the Brasat Takhmao community forest, according to The Phnom Penh Post.
Think Biotech’s director Lu Chu Chang at the time dismissed the reports as slanderous, but a Prey Lang Community Network activist in Stung Treng province, Yim Sopheak, claimed there was evidence the company was collecting and buying timber from outside its forest concession areas.
Ouch Leng posts a sign that prohibits logging in Prey Lang, in an undated photo. Goldman Environmental Prize
Risking safety for environment
When contacted by RFA about the detention on Monday, Ministry of Environment spokesperson Neth Pheak said that the activists had “admitted their wrongdoing” and that the ministry “will not tolerate those who breach the law.”
He said the ministry would not accept their reporting or reports on the status of Prey Lang by community NGOs that are not registered with the Ministry of Interior.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, an environmental activist and founder of the NGO Mother Nature, which is banned in Cambodia, told RFA that the international community would ridicule the country’s government when it learned that authorities had arrested Prey Leng’s protectors.
“It is shameful to the Ministry of Environment when environmental activists get arrested, but not the forest offenders,” he said, calling on Minister of Environment Say Sam Al to “reconsider this action.”
Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment has a history of rejecting reports by NGOs alleging deforestation and illegal logging by land concession companies, which is why environmental activists say they are forced to risk their safety to collect evidence of the crimes.
Chut Wutty, an environmental activist and Ouch Leng’s former colleague, was brutally murdered in 2012 for reporting on forest crimes, while in 2015, a park ranger and police officer were gunned down while patrolling forests for illegal logging and poaching.
Speaking to RFA on Monday, Ouch Leng, chairman of the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF) said that only a handful of people dare to do the work he and his team do, out of fear of reprisal by authorities.
“People dare not protest because they are afraid of arrest and being sent to jail,” said the activist, who has had to go into hiding at various times, and whose family has faced intimidation from military police.
“Luckily, the international community knows me … but ordinary people may be arrested and imprisoned for such activities.”
Ouch Leng urged the government to amend the law in a way that allows environment activists to work freely, and particularly to enter the forest without permission.
Mother Nature activists call for an end to development on the Boeung Tamok Lake in Phnom Penh, in a screenshot from a video posted on July 30, 2020. Mother Nature’s Facebook page
Bail ruling postponed
The release of the five activists came as Cambodia’s Supreme Court announced it would postpone delivering the verdict on the bail application of Mother Nature Youth Movement activists Thon Ratha, Long Kunthea, and Phuon Keo Raksmey from Monday to Feb. 15, citing “a busy schedule.”
The three activists were arrested in early September 2020 after Long Kunthea posted a message to Facebook saying she planned to walk from Wat Phnom to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s home with the aim of deterring the government from filling in Ta Mauk Lake on the outskirts of the capital.
The trio have been charged with “inciting serious social unrest” along with Mother Nature founder Gonzalez-Davidson and Young Khmer Thavark Movement member Chea Kunthin, who are out on bail awaiting trial. All five face up to two years in prison if convicted.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director for Human Rights Monitoring and Protection at Cambodian rights group LICADHO, told RFA the postponement of the verdict on bail for the trio and their continued detention “undermines their rights.”
He said the three activists had sufficient grounds to be granted bail as requested, and that the Court should drop the charges against them because they have been deprived of their ability to participate in protecting natural resources when they are incarcerated.
The charges they face should be dropped because they have not violated any law, Am Sam Ath said, but he acknowledged that “a politically motivated case like theirs” would make it difficult for a judge to provide them justice.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court is scheduled to hear the case against the three environmental activists on Feb. 24.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum and Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.