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Three Cambodian activists convicted and heavily fined — but free

  • 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.

Sim Somnang reunited with his son (left), Try Sovikea (center), and San Mala (right) stand outside Koh Kong prison, having just been released. Photo by Mot Kimry/Mother Nature Cambodia.

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.

Google map shows Koh Kong province in Cambodia.

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.

Supporters of the three Mother Nature activists standing trial came from across Koh Kong province to gather outside the courthouse in Koh Kong City. Photo by Mot Kimry/Mother Nature Cambodia.

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.”

Family members of the three prisoners hold a vigil outside the Koh Kong City courthouse on June 27. Sim Somnang’s wife and child appear on the left; Try Sovikea’s mother appears on the right. Photo by Mot Kimry/Mother Nature Cambodia.

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.”