Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday sentenced 28 people – including several government officials – to between two and five years in jail on charges of clearing state-protected flooded mangrove forest in Kampong Thom province in July of 2012.
Presiding Judge Keo Mony said that Cheath Sivutha, 48, the former director of the provincial Department of Water Resources and Meteorology, was sentenced to three years in jail, with one year suspended, and forced to pay a 10 million riel ($2,500) fine.
Prim Ratha, former governor of Stoung district, was sentenced to three years in jail – though his sentence was suspended – and forced to pay five million riel ($1,250).
“The verdict has been announced publicly, and if any defendant is dissatisfied with this decision, they can make an appeal,” Judge Mony said.
The rest of the defendants – villagers and officials, including a commune chief, a community leader and a district fisheries administration head – were convicted on charges including clearing land; allowing commercial fishing, both directly and indirectly; and encroaching on protected fish hatcheries in the flooded forest.
Sivutha told the court that he had demarcated the 16,200-hectare area into three sections in accordance with a 2011 sub-decree, which allowed construction in areas I and II, but not area III.
In April 2012, he continued, he approved a proposal to clear areas I and II that had already been approved at the commune and district levels. Any clearing that occurred outside those areas, he said, was unbeknownst to him.
“I allowed them to only clear areas I and II, but I never went down to see the areas or ordered lower officials to inspect them,” he said.
Meng Phally, 51, a representative of a village with claims to some of the land in the area, was sentenced to five years in jail with one year suspended.
He said that the clearing had spread into area III only after commune and district officials gave their oral permission to move the stakes demarcating the borders deeper into the protected area.
“I did not know that the reservoir was mapped in the sub-decree, and there was not any instruction from the local authority,” he said.
Nhem Sarat, an officer for the rights group Adhoc in Kampong Thom, welcomed the officials’ convictions.
“I think this is good, and it is an example for other officials,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Lieng Sarith at firstname.lastname@example.org