Mother Nature Activists Found Guilty, Freed

Three environmental activists received 18-month prison terms in Koh Kong province on Friday for threatening to destroy a sand-dredging barge last year, but walked free after the provincial court suspended their sentences to time served, a court official said.

Sim Samnang, 29, Try Sovikea, 26, and San Mala, 24, were all found guilty of initiating “threats to destroy” property for crimes committed after climbing aboard a dredging barge owned by the Direct Access company in August, according to Chhin Long, a spokesman for the Koh Kong Provincial Court.

Environmental activists San Mala, left, Sim Samnang, center in white, and Try Sovikea, far right, greet friends and relatives upon leaving the Koh Kong Provincial Prison on Friday afternoon. (Central)
Environmental activists San Mala, left, Sim Samnang, center in white, and Try Sovikea, far right, greet friends and relatives upon leaving the Koh Kong Provincial Prison on Friday afternoon. (Central)

Mr. Long said the court sentenced them to 18 months, but suspended all but the 10 months they had spent in pretrial detention.

“The court decided to release them this afternoon,” he said, refusing to comment further.

Other court officials could not be reached.

The activists, all members of the NGO Mother Nature, were initially charged with making threats to destroy property, which carries a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. Their lawyer, Ham Sunrith, said he resented the court’s assertion that his clients initiated or masterminded the crime —as there were no perpetrators to speak of.

“The perpetrators were not found, but they found the masterminds. According to the law, the court must convict the perpetrators first, then the court can punish the masterminds,” he said, adding that the activists were also ordered to pay a total of 100 million riel, about $25,000, to Direct Access.

Contacted after his release from the Koh Kong Provincial Prison at 4:15 p.m., Mr. Samnang said he was delighted to be free.

“After we left the prison, we went to bathe in the sea to clean the bad things from us,” he said, adding that he did not know how he and the others were going to come up with the money to pay the company.

“We are poor…. I think that the court meant to threaten us and other people who protect nature and the environment,” Mr. Samnang said.

Mr. Mala said he looked forward to returning to his activism and would appeal the guilty verdict. “The court did not provide justice to us,” he said.

The three activists were arrested while leading a campaign to stop commercial dredging of Koh Kong’s rivers and estuaries, which locals blame for the devastation of fish stocks and other environmental damage.

During their two-day trial this past week, both prosecutors and defense lawyers presented video clips that show the activists protesting with locals around the time of the incident in August. While prosecutors said the footage showed their intent to damage company property, lawyers for the men said it did not, according to those present in the courtroom.

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a co-founder of Mother Nature, voiced confusion about the crime the activists were ultimately convicted of and slammed the decision to fine them. (The Spanish national was deported from Cambodia last year over his role in a campaign to stop the construction of a planned hydropower dam in Koh Kong’s Areng Valley.)

“We now have a rather illogical scenario where neither victims nor perpetrators of the alleged crimes exist (according to the findings of the trial judge), while the three have still been found guilty,” Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson said in an email.

“Regarding the massive fine and compensation in damages they have been ordered to pay, that is equally absurd, as nothing was actually damaged or stolen,” he said, adding that he was pleased to see his colleagues released from “torture like conditions.”

Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson also branded their trial “an utter, humorless farce.”

“Not one of the witnesses saw either of the three issuing those alleged threats, and not one alleged victim of those threats came to give evidence in court,” he said.

“The trial was closed to the public, despite up to 100 people standing outside wanting to come in as spectators,” he said.

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