Three Cambodian mining activists convicted and heavily finedPublished by MAC on 2016-07-09
Source: Mongabay, Khmer Times
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Three Cambodian activists convicted and heavily fined — but free
6 July 2016
Having spent more than 10 months in prison, campaigners against sand mining in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province were released from prison on Friday.
- Try Sovikea, Sim Somnang, and San Mala have been imprisoned since last August for their activities in a direct-action campaign against companies mining sand in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province.
- A provincial judge found them guilty of instigating threats to destroy property and fined them heavily, but released them from prison on a suspended sentence.
- The three activists, with environmental NGO Mother Nature Cambodia, say they plan to appeal the guilty conviction and fines.
Three activists standing trial from Cambodian environmental NGO Mother Nature Cambodia were released from prison on Friday. They had been incarcerated ahead of trial in Koh Kong City prison since August 17, 2015.
Sentencing Try Sovikea, Sim Somnang, and San Mala on Friday, July 1, the provincial judge found all three guilty of instigating threats to destroy property. He sentenced them to 18 months each. However, the sentence was suspended and they were released later the same day, having spent 10 months and fifteen days in jail.
The judge also ordered them to pay the equivalent of $500 each in court costs, as well as a collective sum of $25,000 compensation to the sand-mining company Direct Access, which had levelled the original complaints against the three.
The charges stem from Mother Nature’s campaign against the sand-mining activities of Direct Access and other companies. The group claims that sand dredging is decimating Koh Kong province’s riverine environment and causing a reduction in fish stocks. In July and August 2015, the group, working with communities on the Andong Teuk River in Koh Kong province, carried out direct-action protests, occupying dredging barges and cranes and forcing them to stop work. Later the three were accused of using threatening behavior — which all defendants dispute.
“The court did not give us justice because we did not do any violence, we just protested in a non-violent campaign and we just asked them [the sand-dredgers] to get out of the river,” released activist San Mala told Mongabay on July 3.
San said that all three intend to appeal the guilty conviction. “We are going to talk with our lawyer and she will do the next process and complain to the next court. We want to get justice because we are right. We did the right thing,” he said.
The appeal will also include the fine, which the court levied against the three individuals and not their organization, Mother Nature. “We have no money to pay to the company because we are so poor,” San said.
On the trial’s opening day, June 27, the court was held in closed session, with only the lawyers, accused, witnesses, and UN observers allowed to attend. On the second day a limited number of media and family members of the plaintiffs were admitted.
Around a hundred supporters braved torrential monsoon rains outside the courthouse for the two-day trial, having been denied entry. They had gathered from across Koh Kong province and even the capital, Phnom Penh. Most were participants in environmental campaigns that Mother Nature supports.
“I felt very happy when I saw them in front of the prison. During the two days of court they came to support us. I feel so very happy and thank them, because they love us and want to help us,” San said.
Indigenous Chong people from the Areng Valley, who with Mother Nature defied hydro-dam developers in 2015, were among the gathered supporters. So were fisherfolk from the fishing communities of Koh Sralav and Koh Sdach, both of which have experienced the effects of sand dredging, including reduced fish catches and eroded riverbanks. Others had travelled from agricultural areas like Sre Ambel claiming to have suffered land-grabs by powerful elites.
In the final hours of the two-day trial, the judge unexpectedly changed the charges, charging them as “instigators” rather than “perpetrators” who were “threatening to destroy property accompanied by an order.” This more serious accusation characterised them as the masterminds behind the alleged crime.
According to a joint press statement put out by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and signed by 41 Cambodian civil society organisations, the sudden change of charge “constitutes a denial of the three activists’ right to prepare an adequate legal defence, in violation of their fair trial rights.”
The press statement suggested that the change might have been inspired by a lack of evidence presented by the prosecutor on the original charges. “The defendants’ legal team told the court that the only evidence relied on by the prosecution was inconclusive video clips and witness testimony from several individuals who were not present at the scene of the alleged crime. One key prosecution witness who was on site gave testimony contradicting an earlier written witness statement,” it said.
“I think our time in the prison made us stronger than before,” said San, who added that he is keen to get on with campaigning. “We will still be based in the community, and we will stay with the community and do campaigning at [the] community level.”
Mother Nature director Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson said that Sim Somnang has also expressed enthusiasm to return to his role leading the organisation’s eco-tourism project. He added that Try Sovikea is less certain, having suffered a family bereavement while inside. “All will be offered counselling to overcome their ordeal,” said Gonzalez-Davidson.
Gonzalez-Davidson was originally expected to stand trial together with San, Sim, and Try, but his case was separated in May 2016 because the other three were approaching the ten-month time limit that they could be held without trial.
Deported from Cambodia in February 2015, Gonzalez-Davidson told Mongabay he is demanding the right to enter the country to attend his own trial. “I’m saying, look this is what the law says, I have to be present in that trial, you can’t do this [prevent me entering the country] because it is against your own laws,” he said.
“They’ve come out of jail stronger, more resolute, with more experience, not just the three guys but also the organization as a whole,” Gonzalez-Davidson said. “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Mining Companies Told to Comply
7 July 2016
Only a few days after the Koh Kong Provincial Court found three environmental activists guilty for protesting against a sand dredging company, the Ministry of Energy and Mines has called for greater civilian participation in protecting The Kingdom’s natural resources.
Suy Sem, the Minister of Mining and Energy, issued a strong warning to mining and sand-dredging companies, saying those who do not act within ministerial guidelines will have their licenses revoked, be blacklisted and sent to court.
“It is time for the ministry to take harsh measures and blacklist and revoke the business licenses and send cases to court,” he said at a meeting on Tuesday.
“This is the final instruction about the measures and action by the Ministry of Mining and Energy against any mining business, transport and sand-dredging activities that are against the laws of the ministry.”
In a letter dated July 1, Mr. Sem called for the participation of citizens and international NGOs and development partners to help protect the Kingdom’s natural resources.
“The Ministry of Mining and Energy braces itself to cooperate with the communities, national and international NGOs and development partners to be present in the Kingdom of Cambodia to participate in the protection and development of natural resources in a sustainable way.”
San Chey, the executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, was not convinced the ministry would step up to enforce its regulations against dredging and mining companies, many of whom have been found operating without a license or approval from the ministry.
“It is same old story. The irregularity in the mining and sand-dredging operations was even seen in the first place due to the lack of real studies of the impacts and this is still controversial,” he said.
“They seem to be strict for when the ministry inspection officials pay a visit to the site. This is according to what I talked about to the community.”
The minister’s comments fly in the face of last week’s court decision to fine three Mother Nature activists who were imprisoned for protesting against a sand dredging operation in Koh Kong province.
The court found them guilty of instigation and threatening to cause destruction, defacement or damage under article 424 and 28 of the Penal Code.
The trio spent 10 months and 15 days in pre-trial detention and were ordered to jointly pay $25,000 to a Vietnamese-owned sand dredging company and $500 each to the state, in a trial that has been widely condemned as a farce.
The flouting of regulations by mining and dredging companies has been widely reported in Cambodia.
In 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen banned dredged sand exports, citing the need to conduct environmental studies. According to human rights NGO Global Witness, the ban had not only been completely ignored, but the rate of dredged sand being exported from Cambodia’s coastline had increased.
Mr. Chey noted the irony in the minister’s statement and said the government should stop targeting environmental activists and instead go after illegal mining and dredging operations.
“I used to give the opinion that before protecting the natural resources, it needs to protect the natural resource’s defenders first,” he said.
“The environmental defenders got imprisoned and they have to pay fines to the company instead. The ministry should look into the license of [the Vietnamese company] and have it testify in court to help the community activists that help defend the natural resources.”