Ven Vorn, one of four Areng Valley environmental activists arrested in the past year, was released yesterday afternoon after being found guilty of “forest crimes” by the Koh Kong Provincial Court, which handed down a one-year sentence with seven months suspended.
Vorn, who is also a councillor for the Cambodian People’s Party in Chumnap commune, had been in jail for more than three months.
He was arrested on October 7, after being interrogated by the provincial court, which charged him with harvesting forest products without authorisation and tampering with evidence over allegedly illegal timber he had purchased to build a community centre. Many viewed the charges as payback for Vorn’s activism.
Speaking yesterday, deputy provincial prosecutor Iv Trav confirmed that presiding judge Aing Chenda dropped the “tampering with evidence” charge, a request that was made by the prosecution on February 17 due to lack of proof.
Ith Mathoura, Vorn’s defence attorney, said that while Vorn may still appeal the remaining charge, “it is the lightest punishment, because the crime is a low-level crime and the punishment is suspended, so he can be free to earn a living as usual because his family depends on his income.”
Vorn, upon leaving the provincial prison at 4pm, said the court’s decision was unfair and that he was indeed considering appealing the verdict.
“The allegation is incorrect, because we are the native villagers living there and the law states we have right to [utilise forest] for community benefit without any permission,” he said, adding that the allegations were intimidation over his involvement in protesting a controversial proposed Chinese hydropower project.
Undeterred by his stint in jail, Vorn pledged to continue protesting as well as working for community and ethnic land registration.In Kongchit, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, welcomed the court’s decision as it allows Vorn’s release, but felt the court should have dropped all charges.
“Vorn bought the timber for building the community centre so that the community can use it for working, meeting and especially for children to learn English.
Therefore, he has not done anything wrong,” he said, adding that Vorn was punished because of his activism against hydropower in Areng and his close association with Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, the deported co-founder of environmental group Mother Nature.
Three of his Mother Nature compatriots remain jailed for allegedly interfering with a sand-dredging company’s activities in the area.
Gonzalez-Davidson, on the phone yesterday, said the verdict against Vorn is “a bit of saving face, they don’t want to admit the forestry crimes [charges] are totally baseless”.
“Him not being in those [prison] conditions and being able to see his three daughters – that’s good,” he said, adding, however, that the suspended sentence still hangs over Vorn’s head as a warning.
“The conditions stipulated by the judges will always be the unwritten conditions . . . which are [that] if he does anything they are unhappy about or if the political situation becomes as bad as it was a few months ago, or if they start another development project in the Areng Valley, there’s nothing stopping them from throwing him back in jail.”
Gonzalez-Davidson, who faces charges tied to his Areng Valley activism, is currently petitioning the government to allow him to stand trial in person rather than in absentia.