Environmental activist Chhorn Phalla was sentenced to five years in prison on Wednesday after being convicted of clearing state forest land in Ratanakkiri province. Civil society groups decried what they described as an attempt to silence an activist who had been working to protect Cambodia’s natural resources and indigenous land.
Phalla was arrested in September on charges dating back to 2020. He had returned to the province from Phnom Penh in February after being allegedly attacked and beaten at a public forum in July last year. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Phalla’s defense lawyer Sam Titseyha expressed disappointment that the court had found his client guilty.
“It is a serious conviction against Chhorn Phalla, who has always protected natural resources,” he said. He added that he will discuss a possible appeal with his client.
“The land that he had cleared belongs to his wife as a member of an indigenous minority,” he said.
He said that Phalla was always concerned with protecting the community land of indigenous people.
Phalla’s wife Kham Salong, who is a member of the Tumpoun ethnic minority, maintained that her husband was innocent.
“A sentence of five years is serious, like he killed a human,” she said.
“The land site where they had accused him [of clearing state land] is my parents’ inheritance land that we have been cultivating rotationally,” Salong said. She added that the area is a part of the community-held land that indigenous people have cultivated for years.
She said that she had inherited the use of eight hectares of communally held land from her parents, but that the plot was used by 11 members in her family to cultivate crops and cashew trees.
Chhorn Phalla left Samutkroam village in Seda commune with his family in July last year after allegedly being attacked at a public forum after accusing local authorities of colluding to clear and sell community forest land in 2017. Phalla and his family returned to the village in February this year after a seven-month stay in Phnom Penh.
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc who has been closely monitoring the case, said that Phalla had been actively working to protect the forests and indigenous land.
“I attended the trial [in October], and I have seen no solid evidence against him,” he said.
“It is a threat to activists who protect forestry, land issues, and natural resources, and it is seriously breaking up their spirits,” Senkaruna said.
“It is a chance for bad people or businessmen to continue to commit offenses there [in Ratanakkiri], and it will be more devastating,” he said. “Some people who have destroyed [forest land] aren’t arrested or convicted — but they arrest environmental activists.”
In 2017, nine villagers including Phalla filed a complaint to the provincial court against a group of local authorities including the district governor, district and commune police chiefs, the commune and village chiefs and the director of the provincial environment department, accusing them of failing to file a complaint after witnessing illegal logging.
The conviction of the environmental activist comes shortly after a number of young activists were released from prison in Phnom Penh after finishing their jail terms. Of the seven released, three were members of Khmer Thavrak and Students Intelligent who had their sentences reduced last week. The three were convicted of incitement in May after planning a one-woman march to protest the in-filling of a Phnom Penh lake the year before.
The 16-year-old son of a member of the outlawed opposition party was also released on Wednesday after having been convicted of incitement and insulting public officials in a private Telegram group and through content shared on Facebook.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday last week sentenced Kak Sovann Chhay to eight months in prison. The teenager, who has autism spectrum disorder, served a total of four and a half months of the sentence in prison, with the remaining months suspended.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, applauded the activists’ release, but said that they would still be under pressure throughout their judicial supervision.
“I am thinking [the government] wants to ease a tightening related to human rights issues, and the political situation as well,” he said.
However, he said, civil society groups still see that environmental activists continue to have their fundamental rights violated.
“Their fundamental rights and freedoms are still restricted because even though they were released, they are still under watch due to the court conditions,” Sam Ath said.