An environmental activist in Ratanakkiri province filed a lawsuit on July 20 against six local officials and 10 villagers for allegedly committing acts of violence against him, intimidating him to withdraw a complaint and threatening his life.
The lawsuit has come after activist Chhorn Phalla, 41, was allegedly beaten at a public forum on July 8 in Lumphat district’s Seda commune where he raised the issue of local authorities colluding to clear and sell off community forest land in the area in 2017.
Phalla fled Samoutkroam village with his family last week due to persecution, but authorities have denied the allegations of intimidation and beatings.
Ratanakkiri Provincial Court deputy prosecutor and spokesman Ra Borandy confirmed on July 21 that the court had received Phalla’s complaint.
“They [court officials] have already received a complaint,” he said, before hanging up the phone.
According to a copy of the complaint obtained on July 21, the lawsuit was filed against 10 villagers who Phalla accused of participating in illegal logging as well as six local officials, including the commune chief, police officers, village security guards and a community leader.
In the complaint, the activist accused them of intimidation, using intentional violence, and issuing death threats.
Phalla on July 21 rejected the accounts by authorities published in the media claiming that no violence took place during the public forum.
“I decided to file a complaint because they had beaten me,” he said.
“He [Commune Chief Ang Buntheang] is the authority who failed to prevent a violent group of villagers from coming to beat me,” Phalla said.
He added that he and his family are still in hiding after the persecution and intimidation they had faced at the hands of local officials.
“If there is no solution according to the law, I dare not to return the village,” he said.
He called on the court to conduct an investigation and take legal action against the authorities who he says attempted to intimidate him into withdrawing a complaint he had filed in 2017 alleging that some officials had intentionally ignored illegal land clearing by villagers.
“I ask Samdech Hun Sen to take legal action for those officials who have published disinformation and mistreated villagers,” Phalla said. “Especially, I want the court to prosecute those who have committed offenses.”
Lumphat District Governor Nou The on July 21 denied the allegations made by Phalla, saying that they are untruthful.
“How can we have beaten him up? We are the authority, like the parents of children,” he said, then hung up the phone.
Seda Commune Chief Buntheang could not be reached for comment.
Sam Titseyha, Phalla’s defense lawyer, said he hoped the court would thoroughly investigate the case.
“We have enough pieces of evidence and witnesses to verify the incident of violence against Chhorn Phalla which was committed by a group of people,” he said.
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, called on the court to conduct their investigation with independence and transparency to provide justice for the victim.
“We hope the court will investigate the case because we have seen a lot of issues with regards to collusion between authorities and villagers,” he said, adding that legal action should also be taken against officials at the national level who have colluded collusion to clear forestland.
Senkaruna said authorities should stop intimidating Phalla’s family and several other villagers in Seda commune who had also lodged complaints against local officials in 2017.
“We see it as a violation of human rights that he is a Cambodian citizen but he can’t return to his village,” he said.