Summoned Activist Urges Court to Focus on Forest Crimes

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Forestry activist Chhorn Phalla speaks at a press conference on July 16, 2020 in Phnom Penh. (Chorn Chanren/VOD)

The Ratanakiri Provincial Court has asked a forestry activist to testify in a complaint filed against him by local officials, as the activist questioned the court’s inaction on his own complaint.

In an order signed on July 23, court deputy prosecutor and spokesperson Ra Borandy summoned activist Chhorn Phalla, 42, to give testimony for a complaint in which Lumphat district officials accuse him of “causing trouble” at a public forum.

Phalla told VOD that he would testify, but that he was frustrated the court did not move on his own complaint, which he filed on July 20 against 16 officials and villagers for forestry crimes as well as an alleged beating at the forum in question.

“It is not fair for me, but I will still continue to protect the forest,” he said. “I will fight with them at the court to reveal the real offender and make them face legal action.”

Phalla said he was beaten by villagers and ignored by officials when he spoke about forestry crimes at the public forum in Lumphat district’s Seda commune on July 8.

After the forum, Phalla and several other villagers fled Samut Krom village, fearing for their safety, he said.

Borandy, the provincial prosecutor, said the court had not yet taken any action on Phalla’s complaint but it would consider all complaints.

“Just submit it and [the court] will accept it. But whether the [court] administration has sent it out already or not yet, I don’t know,” he said. “[I] saw some had filed complaints to the court and a prosecutor was assigned to the prosecution. Similarly, we will give them the same consideration. We will look into the facts and evidence in the same way.”

Keo Feunh, a 47-year-old activist who helped Phalla file his latest complaint, said on Friday that he regretted filing the complaint, as it had only led to trouble for the two activists. 

“We filed the complaint to preserve [the forest], but we were deemed to be wrong, while those who destroyed it [were deemed] not to be wrong,” he said.

Feunh said he had left the village and would not return until the case was closed, adding that he hoped Prime Minister Hun Sen would intervene to stop the loss of forest as well as indigenous traditions and culture.

“Before it had plenty [of forest] but now, it is finished,” Feunh said. “Forestry has gone and the land also has gone.”

Phalla said he has participated in protecting the forest since 2016, and since 2017 has filed eight complaints to the provincial court against officials and villagers who were involved in forestry crimes and land encroachment. However, he claimed the court had acted on none of his complaints.

Soeng Senkaruna, spokesperson for human rights group Adhoc, who has been monitoring the case, said Phalla had been allowed by the forum’s coordinator to discuss his concerns, so the activist was not in the wrong. He urged the government to organize an independent group to investigate the case on its merits. 

“If [national authorities] got the case and investigated it clearly, properly and took legal action in accordance with their duties properly, I think they would find justice for the villagers who protect the forests, including Mr. Phalla,” Senkaruna said. “If [they] fail to do so, I think that this case will not be any different [from past disputes], and from the sub-national level to the national level, they will be seen as the same group.”

(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)


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