Ratanakkiri court questions environmental activist5 min read

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Environmental activist Chhorn Phalla speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh on July 16. Panha Chhorpoan
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The Ratanakkiri Provincial Court questioned an environmental activist on September 22 over a lawsuit he filed against six local officials and 10 villagers for intimidation, using intentional violence, and issuing death threats against him.

Deputy prosecutor Ra Borandy confirmed that the court was questioning the plaintiff, Chhorn Phalla, after he had filed the complaint in July, but declined to provide details on the case because it is still being processed.

The lawsuit comes after Phalla, 41, was allegedly beaten at a public forum on July 8 in Lumphat district’s Seda commune, where he had repeated accusations he had previously made that local authorities had colluded to clear and sell off community forest land in the area in 2017.

The activist filed the lawsuit on July 20 against the villagers, who he accused of participating in illegal logging, and the officials, including the commune chief, police officers, village security guards and a community leader, who he says intimidated him and threatened his life.

Phalla’s defense lawyer, Ho Sam Ol, said September 23 that the prosecutor had questioned his client over the allegations of violence and intimidation. He also said that six representatives of Samutkroam village had filed a complaint against Phalla for causing a disturbance at the public forum and incitement to commit a felony.

“We have enough evidence to inculpate the suspects,” he said, adding that he is still collecting evidence in the case that the villagers had filed against Phalla.

“We have a lot of evidence to show that my client did not commit the crimes that they have alleged,” Sam Ol said. “We have pictures and some witnesses who had attended the forum that show Chhorn Phalla didn’t commit the offenses.”

He said he hoped the prosecutor would drop all charges against his client and find the other villagers guilty of committing violence.

Phalla has alleged that during the July 8 public forum, a group of villagers punched and beat him shortly after he had stood up to say that he felt authorities had intentionally turned a blind eye to the destruction of community forest land by the villagers in 2017.

That year, nine villagers including Phalla had filed a complaint to the provincial court accusing the district governor, district and commune police chiefs, commune chief, village chief and director of the provincial environment department of failing to file a complaint after witnessing a felony, according to Phalla.

In a press conference held in Phnom Penh on July 16, he recalled that after the forum, the Seda commune chief had threatened him with arrest if he did not withdraw his complaint. He said the following day, local authorities drove him in a police vehicle to the station to thumbprint an agreement saying he would withdraw the complaint, but he did not comply as he was too badly injured and was instead taken to the hospital. Police and local officials have denied the accusations.

Phalla said that during his questioning on September 22, he had given an in-depth explanation of the events leading up to his beating at on July 8 and the subsequent threats he had received from authorities.

“I have asked the court to punish the suspects according to the law, and to find justice for me as the victim,” he said.

Phalla also denied the accusations made by local villagers that he had caused a disturbance at the forum and incited villagers to clear forestland.

“I have rejected this [to the prosecutor] because I didn’t commit what they have alleged,” Phalla said. “What I had been doing was to protect forest and state property.”

“I am not worried about arrest, which is why I dared to show up at the court to answer questions,” he added.

As of now, it has been two months since Phalla fled Samutkroam village with his family due to persecution, but because authorities have denied the allegations of intimidation and beatings, he does not feel it is safe for him to return home.

“I dare not return to the village right now because the problem has not been resolved, and there is no guarantee for my safety if I return to the village, especially since the suspects have not yet been penalized,” Phalla said.

Deputy Provincial Governor Nhem Sam Oeun said September 22 that authorities could help Phalla and the other villagers reach a compromise, but that they could not guarantee his safety if a villager later approached him seeking revenge.

“It is a private issue between individuals so we don’t know how to guarantee his safety,” he said. “It is important for him to personally talk with the other villagers he has argued with.” 

Samutkroam Village Chief Kham Phor Savath confirmed that Phalla has not returned to the village since he left in July.

He said that Phalla and three of his family members had left the village together, saying they needed to visit the hospital. 

“There were no problems such as [threats],” he said. “They had just said they were going to the hospital and left the village.”

He added that he had not been summoned by the courtover any issues with Phalla.

Seda Commune Police Chief La Be said he was not aware of Phalla’s whereabouts and referred questions to provincial authorities.

Soeng Senkaruna, senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said civil society groups are concerned that authorities have not taken measures to ensure Phalla’s safety when he return to his home.

“We are worried [about his return to the village] because we know that villagers and authorities expelled him from the village,” he said.

“It is risky for him to live there if there is no guarantee for his personal security,” Senkaruna added.

He also called on the court to reject the complaint that the six villagers had filed against Phalla.

“We hope the court will drop the charges against him of incitement after the questioning and will continue to investigate the offenders who should be penalized,” he said.

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