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‘Forest clearing’ arrest provokes road closure

A group of 50 villagers yesterday briefly blocked National Road 4 in Preah Sihanouk province as part of a protest demanding that provincial authorities release a 34-year-old woman arrested for allegedly clearing land in the Kbal Chhay forest, which officials had been campaigning to protect.

Em Kunthea, 34, was arrested by police at about 7 or 8am as she took her children to school, said her husband, Pov Veasna, 37. Within an hour of her arrest, villagers had begun to block the road. By 11am, nearly 100 of them were at the door of the provincial police station demanding Kunthea be released.

She remained in custody as of late afternoon yesterday. “I was panicking when I heard that my wife was arrested over clearing forest [land]” Veasna said. “How can she clear the big forest at Kbal Chhay? She just went to pick up wood for cooking, and we have lived here for nearly 20 years.”

Provincial Governor Yum Min, speaking at a hastily assembled press conference, said that officials recently met to discuss stringent measures to protect the Kbal Chhay area.

“There are still villagers from Sihanouk and from other provinces that come to clear that land,” he said. “Authorities must take strict action to combat illegal clearing in this area.”

Cheap Sothreary, a provincial coordinator for Adhoc, said Kunthea’s family had sought the rights group’s assistance, but witnesses are needed to help prove her innocence.

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