Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Prey Lang activist trialled for ‘attempted murder’ after reporting forest crimes

A homemade truck carrying timber found by the Prey Lang Community Network during a patrol in 2020. Supplied
A homemade truck carrying timber found by the Prey Lang Community Network during a patrol in 2020. Supplied

Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) member Chan Thoeun was tried in absentia today on charges of attempted murder after reporting on the transportation of timber out of the protected Prey Lang forest.

The Kampong Thom provincial court held an in absentia trial on September 16 against Thoeun on the charge of the attempted murder of businessman Pak Yangkoung. The verdict will be announced on September 28.

Defense lawyer Sam Sokhong said that his client was not present at the trial as there had not been enough time for him to attend the hearing. He told CamboJA that during the trial Yangkoung alleged that defendant Chan Thoeun had attempted to stab him when he tried to grab Thoeun during a scuffle in July 2020.

“We saw an exaggeration of the facts, because the victim has become the suspect after they fabricated the story,” Sokhong said. He added that according to Thoeun, the defendant had just taken out a knife to defend himself when Yangkoung tried to attack him.

“There is not enough to show my client committed the offense, so the court should consider acquitting him of the charges,” he said. He explained that his client had fled his home for fear of arrest.

Sokhong said that the incident had occurred in July 2020 in Sandan district after his client had taken photos of homemade trucks transporting timber from the protected area. After the confrontation, he said, the plaintiff had filed a complaint with district military police accusing Thoeun of attempted murder.

Speaking to CamboJA by phone, Thoeun maintained that he had not tried to kill Yangkoung, who he claimed was a timber trader.

“When I saw the homemade truck was carrying timber, I took my smartphone to take a picture, then he [Yangkoung] stopped his truck and came to grab my phone and tried to grab my knife,” he said. “He failed, and I took the knife out to defend myself from him.”   

“At that time, he came close to me and grabbed the knife from my hand and pointed the knife at me and forced me to hand him my smartphone,” he said. “I had just separated from my group while patrolling the forest.”

Thoeun told CamboJA that he had fled his home in October last year when military police came to arrest him. He noted that the day before the military police had come to his home, he had posted a picture of wood being transported on a different occasion on Facebook.

“Now I am still in hiding out of fear of arrest because he has power and money,” Thoeun said. “I think that the lawsuit was brought against me because they can’t transport timber, because I always posted and reported about transporting timber.”

Ros Sarath, Protecting Fundamental Freedoms project coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, expressed concern that environmental and human rights activists were still being targeted by authorities.

“They abused the rights of those highly valued activists who prevent deforestation for our nation,” he said.

Sarat said that the attempted arrest of Chan Thoeun was aimed at suppressing and demoralizing other activists who are continuing to patrol the forest to monitor illegal logging.

“It is a form of threatening that uses the judiciary platform to stop other groups from going to the field to protect the forest,” he said. He added that the transport of timber happened in public, meaning that everyone has the right to take photos and videos.

Hoeun Sopheap, PLCN representative in Kampong Thom province, called on the court to drop the case against an activist who had devoted themself to preventing forest crime.

“That is really an injustice — the person who has protected natural resources has become the victim,” he said. “I think that if the court is independent, they should not conduct this case.”

Reporters were unable to contact Yangkoung, the plaintiff. Sandan district police chief Oung Maly declined to comment, saying that he couldn’t remember the case clearly as it had happened long ago. Presiding judge Luch Lao was not available for comment. (Additional reporting by Sam Sopich)