Three villagers have each been given five-year prison sentences for chopping down what they claim was just a handful of trees on land the Forestry Administration says belongs to the state but which they claim as their own.
Suon Seyha, 31, Soun Hou, 39, and Hong Ly, 42, who are all community activists in Svay Rieng province’s Romeas Hek district, were handed the sentences at the provincial court on Monday.
Judge Hom Meng sentenced the men to the minimum five-year prison term for illegally destroying forest, under Article 97 of the Forestry Law, the men’s lawyer, Som Sokunthea, said.
The trio, first charged three years ago, was not immediately taken into custody.
Seyha told the Post yesterday that he and other villagers had chopped down approximately three small acacia trees in 2012 in order to extend their farmland.
“It is unfair to us,” he said. “The villagers destroy a few small trees and we are sentenced to five years, but how about the powerful people who destroy big and large trees? Now we will prepare a document to present to the court.”
Seyha added that, in his view, the harsh prison sentence was linked to his history of activism.
“I am the leader who leads the villagers to protest and used to go to protest in Phnom Penh many times,” he said. “They sentenced me to jail to threaten me.”
According to Seyha, the disputed land and forest had belonged to 86 local families since 1979, but then in 2008, the Forestry Administration, which manages forests and forest resources, had encroached on the area, planting trees on 71 hectares.
Fellow defendant Ly, 42, who was also sentenced to five years, said the sentence was devastating.
“I have a family to support and we are a poor,” he said. “We did not destroy the state’s trees to make me a rich man.”
He added that he and his family were afraid the court would issue an arrest warrant in the coming days.
Nuth Bopinrot, provincial coordinator for human rights group Licadho, said the penalty handed to the three men was inappropriate because the villagers had only destroyed a few trees.
“Five years is so serious for the villagers and community leaders who are also poor people and have families to support,” he said.
Suon Bunsak, chief of secretariat at the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), also condemned the sentences.
“The authorities should not take judicial action against community activists and human rights defenders in this way,” he said. “The punishment clearly does not fit the crime.
“The government is cracking down on people who take a leadership role and help communities protect the land they have lived on for many years. Slowly, local activists are chipping away at the government’s popularity, and they are afraid of the cumulative effect all these small actions might have.”
However, Bunsak was optimistic about the future.
“Increasingly, people will use their legal rights to protect themselves against the kind of unfair treatment by the government that seems to have happened in this case,” he said. “We have a lot of civil society organisations in this country who are brave enough to defend people’s rights. So I am optimistic that in the longer term, people’s rights will be upheld.”
Net Kok, chief of the Forestry Administration in Romeas Hek district, could not be reach for comment.