Cambodia: indigenous eco-defender released after five months jail on false charges

Ven Vorn enjoyed dinner with his family and friends in Koh Kong City shortly after his release from prison. Photo: Rod Harbinson.
Ven Vorn enjoyed dinner with his family and friends in Koh Kong City shortly after his release from prison. Photo: Rod Harbinson.
After five months of wrongful imprisonment, an environmental activist has finally been set free and reunited with his family, writes Rod Harbinson. His case highlights the way Cambodia's Government subjects eco-defenders to harsh, unjust and arbitrary detention, while illegal logging barons and large-scale timber smugglers lead charmed lives, always above the law.
The fact that the government would claim that this crackdown is addressing the problem and that Ven Vorn’s conviction is part of this crackdown, demonstrates how local people in Cambodia are treated as the perpetrators of forest crime.

Cambodian authorities released a leader of the Chong indigenous group from prison earlier this month on 3rd March.

Ven Vorn, imprisoned since October, was convicted of "harvesting timber products and/or non-timber forest products without a permit" and sentenced to one year in prison.

However, the judge suspended the remaining seven months of his sentence, allowing his immediate release.

Vorn had led a successful campaign to halt construction of a hydropower dam in the remote Areng Valley, the Chong people's homeland in Cambodia's southwestern Cardamom Mountains.

The dam would have flooded much of the Chong's land. Now the group is fighting to gain official recognition as an indigenous people and to get collective titles for their community lands.

I caught up with Vorn a few hours after he was released and reunited with his wife and three daughters. They had made the long journey into the city of Koh Kong, capital of Koh Kong Province, for the court case.

"I am happy to be back with my family, to be out of prison, and to have freedom", Vorn said. His broad smile showed his relief at being released, but he said his freedom is tainted with a bitter taste because of the 'guilty' verdict and one-year sentence.

"The judges found me guilty of a crime and handed me a one year suspended sentence, so even though I am free I am still regarded as someone who has committed a crime. That is what I am not so happy about", Vorn said.

Altough he will not have to serve the remaining seven months of the sentence unless he is arrested again, he is considering an appeal against the conviction and one-year sentence both to clear his name and to lift the threat of further wrongful imprisonment.

Cambodia cracks down on opposition

At Vorn's first trial appearance on 18th February, the Koh Kong Provincial Court dropped a second charge of "destruction of evidence" under Article 533 of the Criminal Code. At the 3rd March court hearing the court convicted him of "harvesting timber products and/or non-timber forest products without a permit" under Article 98 of the Law on Forestry - a charge that carries a five-year maximum sentence.


He maintains he is innocent firstly because he did not cut the timber, and second, because even if he had, local people have special rights to harvest timber and non-timber forest products (NTFPs) from nearby forest for community use. Article 40 of the Law on Forestry gives indigenous communities the right to harvest timber, "to build houses, stables for animals, fences and to make agricultural instruments".

"In the trial, the Forestry Administration accused me of collecting timber and NTFPs without an authorization letter", said Vorn. He maintains he is innocent because he did not cut the timber and even if he had, local and indigenous people have special rights to harvest timber from nearby forests for community use.

The fact that the government would claim that this crackdown is addressing the problem and that Ven Vorn’s conviction is part of this crackdown, demonstrates how local people in Cambodia are treated as the perpetrators of forest crime.

On the face of it, Vorn's conviction stems from a project to construct facilities for visitors to the Areng valley. The project is a partnership between the valley's communities and the conservation NGO Mother Nature.

However at the time of Vorn's first summons in March 2015, Mother Nature's founding director Alex Gonzalez-Davidson had just been deported for his role in the campaign to halt the Areng hydropower dam, raising questions that Vorn's conviction was part of a government effort to target Areng Valley environmental activists.

The day after Gonzalez-Davidson was deported, on February 24th, 2015, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that the dam had been halted until at least 2018. Vorn had played an instrumental role in galvanizing community opposition to the dam, and the provincial authorities had taken note.

False accusations of timber theft

Initially rangers from the New York-based international conservation group Wildlife Alliance raised the issue of cutting wood inside a protected area and required Vorn to thumbprint (the equivalent of signing) a document to verify that he had acquired the timber.

Vorn did so on behalf of the communities involved, explaining that he had not cut the timber himself and that it had been purchased from a local supplier. The timber was used to build the visitors centre, intended for the growing number of students, researchers, sightseers, and foreign tourists visiting the Areng valley.

Rights groups rallied behind Vorn. "A combination of the charges laid against Ven Vorn and his lengthy pre-trial detention suggests possible political motivations behind this case", concluded a report that the Cambodian Center for Human Rights released shortly before Vorn's trial.

"The charges laid against environmental activist Ven Vorn are completely lacking in an evidential basis, leading to the conclusion that the law has been either entirely misinterpreted or willfully misapplied to Ven Vorn. These charges have no reasonable justification under Cambodian law, and violate Ven Vorn's rights under the Cambodian Constitution and international human rights law.

Furthermore, whether Ven Vorn committed the alleged offences or not, an analysis of the facts of this case and all applicable laws leads to the conclusion that Ven Vorn's pretrial detention is both arbitrary and illegal, in violation of his right to liberty and his fair trial rights."

In a joint statement on the day of Vorn's release seven civil society organisations set out their position: "Mr. Ven Vorn has been repeatedly subject to judicial harassment as a result of his continued activism to protect the lands of the indigenous peoples in the Areng Valley ...

"Given the nature of the charge against him and the excessive length of his pre-trial detention, it is clear that the most recent case against him is another attempt to suppress critical voices. If Mr. Ven Vorn had received a fair and independent trial, he would have been cleared of all charges.

"Convicting activists involved in high profile cases and then releasing them on suspended sentences has become an often-used tactic in Cambodia in order to criminalize legitimate activism and to keep activists under close judicial supervision."

Activists under detention in Cambodia

Vorn shared his overcrowded jail cell with three activists from Mother Nature: Try Sovikea, Sim Somnang, and San Mala. They have been in pre-trial detention since their arrest last August for campaigning to stop sand dredging in Koh Kong's mangrove-lined rivers and estuaries. Their fate remains uncertain as they await their trial date.

Vorn's arrest and conviction is part of a wider crackdown on all forms of government opposition including the opposition political party the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Its leader, Sam Rainsy, remains in exile to avoid a growing number of charges levelled against him by the government.

Meanwhile Gonzalez-Davidson was surprised in January to receive a charge, together with two monks who are nominally affiliated with Mother Nature, as an accessory to the same alleged crime related to the sand-dredging campaign as his three imprisoned colleagues. Gonzalez-Davidson remains barred from entering the country.

"The fact that they are denying me a visa, so I can be present during the trial against me, is further evidence that the charges against us are totally baseless and have zero legal basis", said Gonzalez-Davidson.

He maintains his right to defend himself in court and is campaigning to be able to return to stand trial. His arrest warrant states 'whereabouts are unknown' even though he said he has notified the court of his address.

Gonzalez-Davidson explained that the addition of the two monks as accomplices is slowing down the legal process. "Most scandalous of all is the fact that the judges themselves are waiting for an order from vested interests regarding how to proceed with sentencing our case, highlighting yet again the non-independence of the judiciary in Cambodia", he alleged.

Since December, the communities of the Areng valley have been receiving support from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to exercise their rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The communities have begun the process to claim their rights as indigenous peoples and register their land with the government under collective land titles.

"When I go back to the Areng valley I will continue my work, no longer being afraid", said Vorn. "The job to have our land recognized as indigenous people is done in collaboration with the government. We do this for the benefit of the communities, not following the policies of any political party."

So far UN officials have visited the valley four times, and more trips are planned. The communities' claims are likely to receive a further boost when the UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia, Rhona Smith, visits the country later this month. The focus of her visit will reportedly be indigenous peoples.

Government talks tough on illegal logging

Vorn's conviction for illegal timber harvesting comes at a time when the government has ramped up its rhetoric against illegal logging. According to the Phnom Penh Post, in January Prime Minister Hun Sen instituted a committee to combat illegal logging, singling out two logging tycoons for smuggling.

"[T]hey smuggled all the wood to Vietnam without permission and no one could say anything. Sokha has full power to use firearms from the chopper to stop the smuggling activities", the paper quoted a government spokesman as saying in reference to National Military Police commander Sao Sokha, who heads the new committee.

Talk of a crackdown on illegal logging has been common throughout Hun Sen's long premiership. However, observers maintain that government action tends to focus on indigenous groups and local communities rather than big-time timber barons.

Fran Lambrick, a researcher with a UK-based environmental activist group called Not One More, said: "The fact that the government would claim that this crackdown is addressing the problem and that Ven Vorn's conviction is part of this crackdown, demonstrates how local people in Cambodia are treated as the perpetrators of forest crime.

"In fact local people are often just utilizing resources in the best way that they can. The tycoons who make millions of dollars from illegal logging are not being targeted."

Observers also note that the government's threats rarely translate into convictions or other actions unless there is a political advantage to be gained. Marcus Hardtke, the Cambodia-based Southeast Asian program director for the German conservation group ARA, said:

"If Hun Sen wants to end the destruction of Cambodia's forest he should have a family and friends meeting. Unless the cronies get out of the timber business, these so-called crackdowns will remain public relations exercises."

The Cambodian Government is breaking its own rules over timber clearance

Despite observers' skepticism, the government recently completed a wave of illegal logging busts and is currently investigating several companies, although it remains to be seen whether any convictions will come of it.

A 9th March article in the Khmer Times reported that the National Anti-Deforestation Committee, a government agency, filed complaints in provincial courts against five companies that had obtained economic land concessions (ELCs) from the government "after discovering irregularities in the companies' timber stocks."

ELCs, areas explicitly earmarked for conversion to intensive agricultural production, are widely recognized as the main driver of Cambodia's deforestation. Lambrick said the government itself routinely violates its own laws because it is illegal to site an ELC in a forested or a protected area, yet in practice many of them are.

ELCs do allow for timber extraction and clearance if no other restrictions are present, such as CITES protection of listed tree species. But Lambrick said these rules are ignored with impunity as ELC companies clear the concessions, often from healthy forest in protected areas.

"ELCs can only be allocated in degraded forest according to the law", Lambrick said. "A lot of the ELCs are illegal, because they are not placed in degraded forest. Seventy percent of the ELCs allocated in 2012 were placed within protected areas, which have excellent timber, excellent resources.

"Then the ELC comes in, grabs these resources, cuts down the forest, and destroys communities



Rod Harbinson is a journalist, filmmaker and photographer who has reported on some of the biggest environmental issues confronting the developing world for over 20 years. He has particular experience of the Southeast Asian region where he has documented and supported the struggles of indigenous and local people to protect their lands in the face of development.

Watch Rod's film 'Defenders of the Spirit Forest', a 25 minute documentary on Cambodia's Cardamom Mountain forests at:

This article was first published on the Mongabay Reporting Network (CC BY-NC-ND) and is republished here by kind invitation of the author. Read the original article here. This version includes some additional reporting by the author and The Ecologist that has been approved by the author.

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