Forest activists face ‘incitement’ probe

Source : Phnom Penh Post 

Timber seized by authorities in Ratanakkiri near Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary in May. Photo supplied

A senior rights group official and eight ethnic community members were questioned by a Ratanakkiri provincial court prosecutor on Tuesday over alleged incitement to forestry crimes.

According to the court report, Pen Bunna, the senior land and natural resources investigator for rights group Adhoc, and the eight villagers were accused by authorities of inciting people to clear forest land at a sanctuary in Lumphat district’s Seda commune.

The lawsuit also alleged that they had created a group to demand plots of land from an unidentified company with an economic land concession in the area.

Bunna told The Post on Tuesday that two years ago, he and many villagers filed a complaint to court over the authority’s indifference to forestry crimes, only to face a counter-lawsuit.

“We filed the complaint to court not as a civil party but as [witnesses] who can give information about the crime. We’ve been to court to clarify our complaint but recently we’ve received a court summons calling us ‘suspects’ in a counter-lawsuit lodged by the ones we accused of the crime,” he said.

Bunna said he was accused of inciting people to occupy forest land, threatening authority and plotting an insurrection.

He claimed the Ministry of Environment had put more than 1,200ha of forestland in Lumphat district under the ethnic community’s protection. But after witnessing the felling of thousands of trees, Bunna and the community reported to the authority, which they claim ignored the complaint.

“The prosecutor questioned us over what we have been accused of, but we denied all the allegations. They accused me of inciting villagers to clear and sell forest land but I don’t have even a single plot of forestland although I’ve lived in Ratanakkiri for 10 years.”

“I’ve always told the community to report forest crimes to the authorities. We never told them to threaten the authorities.”

“The accusation that we created an insurrection zone was unacceptable. The insurrection allegation is hard to accept because we don’t have any guns, we are bare-handed. So we reject all the accusations made by the authority and relevant institutions.”

“We request the deputy prosecutor to make a field visit to see how the forest has been cleared,” Bunna said.

He added that 32 other community members have also been sued by authorities.

 

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