An anti-logging activist was on Tuesday convicted of assault against an alleged timber trader, as rights groups linked the verdict to ongoing harassment and intimidation against environmentalists in the country.
The Kampong Thom Provincial Court sentenced Chan Thoeun, who is in hiding, to two years’ imprisonment, but suspended the sentence, according to his lawyer Sam Sokong.
Sokong said the judge had also downgraded the charge from attempted murder to intentional violence with aggravating circumstances.
Thoeun has previously said that he saw a timber trader hauling timber from a community forest in July last year, but was threatened at knifepoint when he pulled out his phone to capture footage, alleging that he was the victim, not the aggressor.
Sokong said that although the two-year sentence was suspended, he considered the court’s decision unfair because his client was the victim. “We see that [the court] has not yet been given justice to the client,” he said.
Thoeun, who is a member of the Prey Lang Community Network in Kampong Thom province, said he would appeal the conviction.
“It is an injustice against me. When it comes to many huge crimes of timber [trafficking], they do not prosecute them. But they sue me and accuse me, and it is unjust,” he said. “I do not accept it because I did not do anything wrong and they came to take my phone and prosecuted me. I will appeal to the Appeal Court. The decision is unacceptable since I am a victim.”
Cambodian Center for Human Rights executive director Chak Sopheap said members of the Prey Lang Community Network have been facing harassment as well as physical and legal threats. Environmentalists should not be facing such actions under a democracy, she said.
“I hope that the government should reconsider its commitment to the protection of natural resources, and that commitment can only be achieved with the participation of local communities,” Sopheap said. “As long as local communities that are active in protecting the environment remain under threat, it contradicts the government’s claimed commitment.”
The network, which works to protect the massive Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, has been banned from conducting patrols since last year. Environmentalists have been arrested in the protected area, and the U.S. this year pulled funding to the government for Prey Lang-related projects, citing continued logging, failure to prosecute timber traders and silencing of environmentalists. Other environmentalists have also been jailed and charged with plotting against the government.
Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns, said Thoeun should never have been charged or tried, and his conviction fit a pattern of silencing and intimidating environmental activists in Prey Lang and across Cambodia.
“Chan Thoeun and the PLCN have been standing up against powerful illegal logging interests for years,” Hah said. “They have defended the Prey Lang forest while the Cambodian authorities have turned a blind eye to the rampant destruction of this vital ecosystem, which is an essential part of the culture of indigenous Kuy communities.”