A prominent Areng Valley activist joined three other environmentalists in jail yesterday in Koh Kong after being questioned at the provincial court about alleged “forest crimes”.
Ven Vorn, 36, a community representative and commune councillor with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, was arrested at the provincial court at about 12pm yesterday after being questioned by investigating judge Min Makara.
Vorn has been charged with collecting forest products without permission and tampering with evidence. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to up to five years in prison.
Following his incarceration, defence attorney Chan Socheat refuted the charges.
“The court charged him with collecting forest products without permission, but actually he only used them to build a community tourism centre in the Areng Valley.”
Makara hung up on a reporter yesterday when asked about the case.
In Kongchit, a coordinator with local rights group Licadho, said Vorn’s arrest was linked to his environmental activism in the remote valley, which includes his high-profile opposition to a proposed Chinese hydropower project.
He added that Vorn has been accused of defecting to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which he vehemently denies. “He has worked to protect natural resources in the Areng Valley,” he said. “His arrest is an attempt to intimidate other people so they don’t protest anymore.”
Vorn was one of 17 people – a group that included human-rights monitors and journalists – arrested last month while attending a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of three activists affiliated with environmental NGO Mother Nature, who were imprisoned in August over their anti-sand dredging activities.
Outside court yesterday, about 40 people gathered in support of the activist. They were met by equal numbers of security personnel.
Vorn’s sister-in-law Rim Sao Sy, who joined yesterday’s gathering, said he had prevented rather than committed forest crimes.
“Our community has preserved the tradition of the Chong ethnic people and stopped illegal deforestation and protected community land,” she explained. “The court is unjust.”
Mother Nature’s co-founder, Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, who was ejected from the country earlier this year after officials refused to renew his visa, denounced the action against Vorn, which he said was “directly related to his active and efficient involvement in the empowerment of the local communities of Areng.
“The Koh Kong syndicates which control the provincial government and judiciary see him as an obstacle they had to get rid of so they can pursue their illegal enterprises, i.e. the hydro dam.”
But, he added, Vorn’s arrest would do nothing to stifle environmental activism in the valley.
“There is not a doubt in my mind that other community members will now rise up to the challenge and now take his place, even stronger and more determined than him.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY