The Ministry of Environment has clarified that the five activists who were arrested by environmental officials in Kratie province on February 5 had illegally entered the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary located there.

They were sent to Kratie Provincial Court for further legal action on February 7.

The five forest activists included 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Ouch Leng along with Heng Sros, Man Math, Heng Ron and Tang Cheang.

In a press release, the ministry said: “[The] suspects confessed that they had illegally entered the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in Kratie province and operated there without permission.

“They had signed a letter promising to stop their activities and stop entering natural protected areas without permission for any reason. Such activities are against the Law on Environmental Protection and Natural Resource Management,” the statement said.

The ministry said the five activists had performed their activities under the name of an NGO, which was not registered with the Ministry of Interior, without the authorisation of the environment ministry.

It said the activists went into the forest in order to take photos to produce reports which defame Cambodia in order to get financial support from donors abroad.

Soeng Sen Karuna, the senior investigator for local rights group Adhoc who is following the case in Kratie province, said the five activists conducted a campaign to protect the forests and had put signs on big trees in order to discourage logging.

He said they used the slogan “please protect our ancestral forests!” on signs hung on trees in Prey Lang in Sambor district’ Kampong Cham commune.

Sen Karuna said at first 10 environmental activists were arrested but five were then released later after they signed a letter promising to stop their activity.

“They arrested the five activists and held them for 48 hours at the Kratie town police station before sending them to court,” he said, adding that civil society organisations were following the case closely and that Licadho had sent lawyers to defend them.

Sen Karuna said it was regrettable that the authorities detained forest activists for simply trying to protect the forest.

He said that in the laws regarding the forests, only those who destroy the forests or natural resources like wildlife should face legal action.

“We still ask why this was considered so serious an offense that they [authorities] detained them for 48 hours without charges or any real crimes. If they are accused of trespassing in a forbidden zone, they should only make them leave the area. They were there doing good deeds, not as criminals,” Sen Karuna said.

He urged the relevant authorities to instead focus on crackdowns on criminals who destroy forests, natural resources and wildlife.

“The government’s leadership should intervene in this case and release them because arresting them brings no benefit. This will get a negative reaction from just about everyone and especially from the international community,” Sen Karuna said.

Khem Sokhy, an environmental activist who used to work with the five detainees, said they had raised awareness among the public to help prevent deforestation by putting signs against deforestation up on the trees.

“They put signs on the trees calling on people not to cut the trees down and when they went into the area the environment officials said is a forbidden zone and arrested them.

“We went to the forest and we did not do anything wrong. We just put up signs calling on others not to cut down the forest which is our ancestral heritage,” he said.

The most prominent of the five activists, Leng, is the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF) director and the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize winner.