The Koh Kong Provincial Court yesterday dropped a “tampering with evidence” charge against prominent Areng Valley environmental activist Ven Vorn, but kept the charge of harvesting forest products without authorisation.
Vorn, 36, a community representative and commune councillor with the Cambodian People’s Party, was arrested in October and appeared in court for the first time yesterday. If he is found guilty on the remaining charge, he could be sentenced to up to five years in prison.
Vorn previously has been involved in protests against the proposed Sinohydro Resources Ltd dam in the area, alongside deported Mother Nature founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson. He was briefly detained in September while protesting the jailing of three members of the environmental NGO. A month later, he was arrested on the logging charge.
“Those charges should not exist,” one of Vorn’s defence lawyers, Ith Mathoura, said yesterday. “If we look at the case, my client bought the timber for building a house, and it’s not required to ask permission from the Forestry Administration for that.”
The Forestry Administration first filed a complaint against Vorn in February 2015, accusing him of illegally harvesting wood to build a small community centre to accommodate eco-tourists, even after the Thmor Bang district government forbade him from doing so.
The administration claimed the building’s purpose was business, which requires a permit under forestry law. It further alleged that Vorn tampered with evidence (the wood) by making a building out of it.
Vorn and his defence team denied that he harvested the wood, though Vorn admitted buying the wood from two loggers. Police say they have been unsuccessful in attempts to track down the loggers.
Vorn also said he was not present when the Thmor Bang district government denied his request.
This was corroborated by four Areng Valley community witnesses in court yesterday who said they had been present at that meeting.
According to Mathoura, the four witnesses yesterday said Deputy District Governor Keo Nybora in fact ruled that the centre could be built, only to later change his tune. Nybora could not be reached for comment yesterday.
After the trial ended at 11am, Koh Kong provincial deputy prosecutor Iv Trav told the Post that the initial charge of tampering with evidence did not hold up to legal scrutiny and had to be dropped.
“The evidence that we have received is not legally complete to support the charge,” he said.
In Kong Chit, Koh Kong provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, praised the decision to drop the charge and said he hopes the judge will drop the remaining one as well. A verdict is due on March 3.
Additional reporting by Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon