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Indigenous forest activist released from prison amid Cambodian crackdown

  • Ven Vorn, imprisoned since October, was convicted of harvesting forest products without authorization and sentenced to one year in prison. However, the judge suspended the remaining seven months of his sentence, allowing his release.
  • Vorn was arrested after leading a successful campaign to halt construction of a hydropower dam in the Chong indigenous people’s homeland in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains.
  • His release occurred even as other environmental activists from the region remain in prison or in exile, part of a wider crackdown by the Cambodian government against its opponents.

Cambodian authorities released a leader of the Chong indigenous group from prison on March 3. Ven Vorn, imprisoned since October, was convicted of harvesting forest products without authorization and sentenced to one year in prison. However, the judge suspended the remaining seven months of his sentence, allowing his release.

Vorn had led a successful campaign to halt construction of a hydropower dam in the remote Areng Valley, the Chong people’s homeland in Cambodia’s southwestern Cardamom Mountains. The dam would have flooded much of the Chong’s land. Now the group is fighting to gain official recognition as an indigenous people and to get collective titles for their community lands.

Mongabay caught up with Vorn a few hours after he was released and reunited with his wife and three daughters. They had made the long journey into the city of Koh Kong, capital of Koh Kong Province, for the court case.

Not for reuse.  Image by Rod Harbinson/
Ven Vorn enjoyed dinner with his family and friends in Koh Kong City shortly after his release from prison. Image by Rod Harbinson/

“I am happy to be back with my family, to be out of prison, and to have freedom,” Vorn said. His broad smile showed his relief at being released, but he said his freedom is tainted with a bitter taste because of the guilty conviction and one-year sentence. However, he will not have to serve the remaining seven months of the sentence unless he is arrested again.

“The judges found me guilty of a crime and handed me a one year suspended sentence, so even though I am free I am still regarded as someone who has committed a crime. That is what I am not so happy [about],” Vorn said.

At his first trial appearance on February 18, the Koh Kong Provincial Court dropped a second charge of “tampering with evidence.” At the March 3 court date the court convicted him of harvesting forest products without authorisation, a charge that carries a maximum five-year sentence.

“In the trial, the Forestry Administration accused me of collecting timber and NTFPs [non-timber forest products] without an authorization letter,” said Vorn. He maintains he is innocent because he did not cut the timber and even if he had, local and indigenous people have special rights to harvest timber from nearby forests for community use.

Vorn said he is considering appealing the one-year sentence.

Cambodia cracks down on opposition

On the face of it, Vorn’s conviction stems from a project to construct facilities for visitors to the Areng valley. The project is a partnership between the valley’s communities and the conservation NGO Mother Nature.

However at the time of Vorn’s first summons in March 2015, Mother Nature’s founding director Alex Gonzalez-Davidson had just been deported for his role in the campaign to halt the Areng hydro-dam, raising questions that Vorn’s conviction was part of a government effort to target Areng Valley environmental activists.

The day after Gonzalez-Davidson was deported, on February 24, 2015, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that the dam had been halted until at least 2018. Vorn had played an instrumental role in galvanizing community opposition to the dam, and the provincial authorities had taken note.

Not for reuse.  Image by Rod Harbinson/
Ven Vorn addressed a meeting of provincial officials and villagers about the Areng dam, in 2014. The government has since put plans for the dam on hold. Image by Rod Harbinson/

Initially rangers from the New York-based international conservation group Wildlife Alliance raised the issue of cutting wood inside a protected area and required Vorn to thumbprint (the equivalent of signing) a document to verify that he had acquired the timber. Vorn did so on behalf of the communities involved, explaining that he had not cut the timber himself and that it had been purchased from a local supplier. The timber was used to build the visitors center, intended for the growing number of students, researchers, sightseers, and foreign tourists visiting the Areng valley.

Rights groups rallied behind Vorn. “A combination of the charges laid against Ven Vorn and his lengthy pre-trial detention suggests possible political motivations behind this case. Based on the analysis of the charges and evidence above, if Ven Vorn receives a fair and independent trial, he must be cleared of all charges and released,” concluded a report that the Cambodian Center for Human Rights released shortly before Vorn’s trial.

“While the release of Mr. Ven Vorn is undoubtedly welcome, he should not have been arrested and convicted in the first place,” reads a joint statement issued by seven civil society organisations on the day of Vorn’s release.

Vorn shared his overcrowded jail cell with three activists from Mother Nature: Try Sovikea, Sim Somnang, and San Mala. They have been in pre-trial detention since their arrest last August for campaigning to stop sand dredging in Koh Kong’s mangrove-lined rivers and estuaries. Their fate remains uncertain as they await their trial date.

Vorn’s arrest and conviction is part of a wider crackdown on all forms of government opposition including the opposition political party the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Its leader, Sam Rainsy, remains in exile to avoid a growing number of charges levelled against him by the government.

Meanwhile Gonzalez-Davidson was surprised in January to receive a charge, together with two monks who are nominally affiliated with Mother Nature, as an accessory to the same alleged crime related to the sand-dredging campaign as his three imprisoned colleagues. Gonzalez-Davidson remains barred from entering the country.

“The fact that they are denying me a visa, so I can be present during the trial against me, is further evidence that the charges against us are totally baseless and have zero legal basis,” Gonzalez-Davidson told Mongabay.

He maintains his right to defend himself in court and is campaigning to be able to return to stand trial. His arrest warrant states “whereabouts are unknown” even though he said he has notified the court of his address. Gonzalez-Davidson explained that the addition of the two monks as accomplices is slowing down the legal process.

“Most scandalous of all is the fact that the judges themselves are waiting for an order from vested interests regarding how to proceed with sentencing our case, highlighting yet again the non-independence of the judiciary in Cambodia,” he alleged.

Since December, the communities of the Areng valley have been receiving support from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to exercise their rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The communities have begun the process to claim their rights as indigenous peoples and register their land with the government under collective land titles.

“When I go back to the Areng valley I will continue my work, no longer being afraid,” said Vorn. “The job to have our land recognized as indigenous people is done in collaboration with the government. We do this for the benefit of the communities, not following the policies of any political party.”

So far UN officials have visited the valley four times, and more trips are planned. The communities’ claims are likely to receive a further boost when the UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia, Rhona Smith, visits the country later this month. The focus of her visit will reportedly be indigenous peoples.

Not for reuse.  Image by Rod Harbinson/
Members of the Cambodian country office of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights discussed indigenous rights issues with members of the Chong people in the Areng Valley in December 2015. Ven Vorn was convicted of harvesting timber without authorization in order to build the community center used for the meeting. Image by Rod Harbinson/

Government talks tough on illegal logging

Vorn’s conviction for illegal timber harvesting comes at a time when the government has ramped up its rhetoric against illegal logging.

According to the Phnom Penh Post, in January Prime Minister Hun Sen instituted a committee to combat illegal logging, singling out two logging tycoons for smuggling. “[T]hey smuggled all the wood to Vietnam without permission and no one could say anything. Sokha has full power to use firearms from the chopper to stop the smuggling activities,” the paper quoted a government spokesman as saying in reference to National Military Police commander Sao Sokha, who heads the new committee.

Talk of a crackdown on illegal logging has been common throughout Hun Sen’s long premiership. However, observers maintain that government action tends to focus on indigenous groups and local communities rather than big-time timber barons.

“The fact that the government would claim that this crackdown is addressing the problem and that Ven Vorn’s conviction is part of this crackdown, demonstrates how local people in Cambodia are treated as the perpetrators of forest crime. In fact local people are often just utilizing resources in the best way that they can. The tycoons who make millions of dollars from illegal logging are not being targeted,” Fran Lambrick, a researcher with a UK-based environmental activist group called Not One More, told Mongabay.

Observers also note that the government’s threats rarely translate into convictions or other actions unless there is a political advantage to be gained.

“If Hun Sen wants to end the destruction of Cambodia’s forest he should have a family and friends meeting. Unless the cronies get out of the timber business, these so-called crackdowns will remain public relations exercises,” Marcus Hardtke, the Cambodia-based Southeast Asian program director for the German conservation group ARA, told Mongabay.

Despite observers’ skepticism, the government recently completed a wave of illegal logging busts and is currently investigating several companies, although it remains to be seen whether any convictions will come of it. A March 9 article in the Khmer Times reported that the National Anti-Deforestation Committee, a government agency, filed complaints in provincial courts against five companies that had obtained economic land concessions (ELCs) from the government “after discovering irregularities in the companies’ timber stocks.”

ELCs, areas explicitly earmarked for conversion to intensive agricultural production, are widely recognized as the main driver of Cambodia’s deforestation.

Lambrick said the government itself routinely violates its own laws because it is illegal to site an ELC in a forested or a protected area, yet in practice many of them are. ELCs do allow for timber extraction and clearance if no other restrictions are present, such as CITES protection of listed tree species. But Lambrick said these rules are ignored with impunity as ELC companies clear the concessions, often from healthy forest in protected areas.

“ELCs can only be allocated in degraded forest according to the law. A lot of the ELCs are illegal, because they are not placed in degraded forest. Seventy percent of the ELCs allocated in 2012 were placed within protected areas, which have excellent timber, excellent resources. Then the ELC comes in, grabs these resources, cuts down the forest, and destroys communities,” Lambrick said.



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