Two activists from the conservation group Mother Nature were tried yesterday in Koh Kong for photographing a vessel at sea, with their lawyer asking the court to dismiss the charges due to a lack of evidence that they had committed any crime.
In September, activists Hun Vannak, 35, and Dem Kundy, 21, were charged with “incitement to commit a felony” and making unauthorised recordings of a person in “a private place”, for filming a suspected sand-bearing ship a kilometre away from a boat of their own in the open ocean.
Yesterday’s trial lasted around three and a half hours, and a verdict is expected today, a lightning-quick turnaround for Cambodia’s notoriously sluggish courts.
Defence lawyer Sam Chamroeun yesterday said the judge should throw out the case, as the witness accounts were weak and the prosecution lacked concrete evidence.
“Both I and [the defendants] suggested that the judge drop the charges because they are not guilty,” Chamroeun said in an interview after the trial.
“We hope [the decision] will be a positive verdict for our clients.”
Read more: How Mother Nature duo followed their principles into activism — and a trial
Chamroeun also took aim at LYP Group’s Chief of Staff Chan Nakry, who brought the initial complaint against the Mother Nature duo. Chamroeun said he was not a victim, was absent from the trial, and had no right to bring the case because there was no letter from the company confirming Nakry as their representative.
Reached yesterday, Nakry said he was too busy to attend the proceedings and referred questions to his lawyer, Chun Socheat. Socheat would only say that the location in the ocean where the two suspects were filming “belonged to the company”.
According to Phal Chamroeun, a volunteer trial monitor with rights group Adhoc, during the trial Socheat claimed the pair took photos, posted them to Facebook, and “incited” society by accusing the company of foul play. While Mother Nature activists have been prolific in sharing footage on social media, Vannak and Kundy were arrested before uploading the footage in question.
If found guilty, the pair could face up to two years for the “incitement” charge, and as much as an additional year for making unauthorised recordings.
Mother Nature has long campaigned against sand dredging in Koh Kong, and the industry has become a contentious issue in Cambodia – and not just for its environmental impacts.
In 2016, data revealed the amount of sand the Kingdom reported exporting to Singapore was a tiny fraction of what Singapore said it received, inviting speculation that corruption was the cause for the missing sand. Other data showed similar gaps in reported exports to India and Taiwan.
The Ministry of Mines and Energy last year “completely halted the export of all kinds of construction sand and mud sand from Koh Kong province to foreign countries”. Silica sand, which was suspected to be the type of sand on the ship filmed by the activists, was later said to be exempt from the foreign export ban.
Mother Nature co-founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who was expelled from the country in 2015, yesterday described the trial as a “joke”, and said he hoped the “nightmare that Vannak and Kundy are having will end soon”.
Dem Kundy’s mother, Duong Saktheary, said she was “suffering” through her son’s ordeal. “I would have accepted it if my son was guilty of doing something wrong, but he was just helping to protect the forest and the environment for everyone,” she said.
Adhoc’s Phal Chamroeun agreed with the pair’s defence lawyer that there was insufficient evidence to convict them.
“If the judge follows the procedures and thoroughly considers the case, we do hope that they will be released,” he said.
Hour In, a legal adviser from the rights group Licadho, said the complaint filed to the police was very short, simply accusing them of taking photos of the company’s vessel without permission. However, he said, when the case reached the court, the additional “incitement” charge was tacked on.
Simon Walker, country representative of the UN’s Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the body was monitoring the trial due to “the importance of consistency and fairness in trials, particularly in relation to criminal cases, and the need to apply the same evidentiary standards of proof”.