The Supreme Court on Friday heard the appeal case of three environmentalists who were sentenced on charges of “intimidation” and “causing damage” while investigating an alleged illegal sand dredging operation in Koh Kong province in 2016.
Sun Mala, Try Sovikea and Sim Samnang, formerly with the banned NGO Mother Nature, declined to provide testimony to the court directly as requested, instead of allowing their lawyer to recount the events that led up to their arrest and subsequent imprisonment for the past 10 months.
Sam Chamroeun, the defense lawyer, told the court that the trio had not committed any criminal offenses, with the initial decision to jail the group made by a single local judge without allowing for cross-examination of the narrative described by the prosecution.
“The decision was made with loopholes of procedure, causing rights violations over the victims,” he said.
He went on to say that there was no evidence of intimidation towards local officials or representatives of the sand dredging company involved in the complaint.
He then called for the court to drop all charges against his clients.
“I understand that this activity is humanitarian activity and an act of loving nature,” he said. “This activity is an act of taking care of and paying attention to the environmental impacts because there are not many sand-dredging activities in other provinces. But it occurred in many places in Koh Kong.”
Prosecutor Chan Dara Raksmey, however, claimed the defendants had used threatening language towards the owners of the sand dredging barges and said the company’s activities were licensed by the government.
“The accused persons, Try Sovikea, Sim Samnang, and Sun Mala threatened staff to drive ferries away from sand-dredging sites,” he said.
He added that the Direct Access company would be demanding further compensation for lost earnings due to the environmentalists’ direct action campaign.
Mala, one of the activists, said outside the court after the hearing that the group had not threatened to burn the Direct Access barges as the prosecution had claimed.
“The court should not uphold the sentences. They should give justice to us because what we did was for the sake of our social interest; particularly, the people living along the creeks suffering from sand-dredging,” he said.
“The government, later on, stopped sand-dredging in Koh Kong province, so it reflected that what we did was correct and in the legal interest of our people and our country,” he added.
Soeng Senkaruna, a spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, who observed the hearing of the three activists on Friday, told VOA after the hearing that the activities of the three activists should be encouraged.
“As the lawyer said, they didn’t use any threatening words. How did they use threatening words? And against whom? Who was harmed?” he said.