After more than 10 months in pretrial detention, a trio of activists from environmental group Mother Nature yesterday faced court for allegedly threatening to destroy dredging equipment during a protest against sand mining in Koh Kong province last year.
San Mala, 24, Try Sovikea, 26, and Sim Somnang, 29, arrived at Koh Kong’s Provincial Courthouse at about 8am, their prison van passing a group of about 70 supporters and relatives gathered outside.
The group was forced to wait in the street amid heavy monsoon rain for the duration of the seven-hour hearing, though families were granted permission to enter the court in the afternoon.
The trio has been charged under Article 424 of the Penal Code – “making a threat followed by an order” – following a complaint by Bokum Sakor District Deputy Governor Suon Sitha and Khim Samet, an employee of company Direct Access, whose vessels the activists boarded during the July protests.
Samet has also demanded $100,000 in compensation, though there has been no suggestion that the men, or the protesters they were with, damaged any of the boats or equipment.
While journalists were initially barred from the hearing, the Post gained access to the final stages of the afternoon session, during which the witness statements of two dredging company employees were read to the court by clerk Ket Dalin.
The workers claimed more than 60 activists boarded the vessel and “used unacceptable ugly words” and “looked down on the workers”, threatening to “burn down and damage the machinery” if the dredgers didn’t abandon the boats. “They banned the company from operating the sand dredgers, because they accused the company of operating without a licence,” one statement read.
Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME) provincial director Pich Siyon also gave testimony yesterday, as did district MME official Bou Veasna and plaintiffs Sitha and Samet.
According to a copy of court documents seen by the Post, Siyon, in his written testimony, claimed the company had a valid licence to dredge until August 19 last year.
The government official also backed the complainants’ assertions.“On July 26, the youth from Mother Nature and [youth group] Mohanokor gathered about 70 community members and took seven boats to the dredging site, climbing on the sand ferry and ordering workers to drive it away, but they refused,” his statement reads.
“They cursed the workers and authorities, saying ‘you are the national betrayers and safeguard of yuon’,” using a term for Vietnamese considered derogatory by many.
According to a court monitor who was inside the hearing, Siyon, Veasna, Sitha and Samet all conceded they had not witnessed the protest themselves but were relying on reports from subordinates.
Their version of events was contradicted by Chhay Vy, an eyewitness for the defence – one of 16 expected to give evidence today – who spoke to the Post after the hearing.
Vy asserted that it was the wife of one of the dredging company employees who had become hostile after the activists boarded the ferry.
“She used bad words, saying ‘the sand does not belong to you’,” said Vy, a farmer from Chi Kor Leu commune who attended most of the Mother Nature protests.
“The accusations of threatening to burn down the ferry are not true.”
According to the monitor inside, who declined to be named, judge Min Makara kicked off yesterday’s proceedings by denying a bail request.
Prosecutor Iv Tray had argued there was no case for excessive detention because the defence’s appeal against the closing order had effectively frozen the four-month limit on starting a trial.
The monitor added that Makara frequently “shouted” at the defendants and seemed to presume their guilt.
The judge, who declined to comment after the hearing, also questioned Mother Nature’s registration with the Ministry of Interior and called their position on the negative impacts of sand dredging “unreasonable” as they were not experts.
He also inquired why the group never mentioned the “positives of sand dredging”, saying that the ongoing existence of fish traders indicated there was no harm, the monitor said.
Research by the International Union for Conservation of Nature states that “extensive” sand mining in the province’s estuaries is threatening the area’s delicate mangrove ecosystem and devastating fish catches by up to 90 per cent in some areas. Multiple fishermen interviewed by the Post this week described drastic drops in their catches in recent years.
The case has been slammed by critics as an attempt to intimidate communities in the province and stop them from protesting against dredging, which has been linked to politically connected companies.
Mother Nature co-founder Alex Gonzalez Davidson, a Spanish national who was refused a new visa and subsequently deported by the government, has also been charged as an accomplice, though his case has been severed from his co-defendants.
Via email yesterday from Spain, the activist said his co-workers’ detention amounted to “kidnapping”.
“The aim of this kidnap is simple, to ensure that the illegal sand mining operations can continue without unwanted obstacles.”
Speaking outside the court yesterday, families and supporters criticised the case.
“I hope the court will drop the charge. They did nothing wrong; they have the right to protest to take care of the environment and the communities’ livelihood,” said 23-year-old Tha Sopheap, the wife of Sim Somnang, as she held the couple’s 3-year-old son.
Nearby, Chhim Sreyna said she travelled five hours by boat to attend the hearing from her isolated fishing village.
“I just came to support the activists, my community is also affected by sand dredging. I want it to stop,” she said.
The trial will resume today at 8am.