A local civil society group called on the Justice Ministry to investigate authorities in Ratanakkiri province for allegedly intimidating environmental activists to withdraw their complaint against corrupt officials related to the destruction of a community forest.
The request comes after an environmental activist was allegedly beaten up at a public forum held on July 8 in Lumphat district’s Seda commune after he raised the issue of local authorities colluding to clear and sell off community forestland in 2017.
Activist Chhorn Phalla, 41, fled Samutkroam village with his family this week due to persecution, but authorities have denied the allegations of intimidation and beatings.
Ny Sokha, head of human rights and land rights at Adhoc, said at a press conference on July 16 that his organization has received at least three letters from other villagers in the area saying they had been forced by local authorities to sign contracts promising to withdraw complaints they had made court over illegal forestland clearing.
“I have received three letters from villagers who have said they promised to withdraw complaints,” Sokha said at the press conference, adding that some villagers were brought in front of local authorities and police officials to sign paperwork withdrawing their complaints on July 8 and 9.
“It raises concerns over why they had gone to withdraw their complaints in front of officials, and whether the officials had made a mistake or not,” Sokha said. “I am just raising the issue for law experts to consider, especially the Justice Ministry.”
He added that a criminal complaint cannot be withdrawn by police officials or local authorities because once a complaint is filed, it is the duty of the provincial court prosecutor to decide how to proceed.
“We have asked [judicial] authorities to consider carrying out the law regarding a person who has committed intimidation against another person not to file a complaint,” Sokha said.
He said that the court and Justice Ministry should take into consideration Article 527 of the Criminal Code, which says “any threat or intimidation made against a victim with a view to persuading him or her not to file a complaint or to withdraw it shall be punishable by imprisonment from 1 to 3 years.”
Phalla, who was present at the press conference, called on the government to provide him with protection from authorities and other villagers who he says have hated him since he filed a complaint several years ago alleging they had colluded with authorities to clear community forest land.
“My family members and I are afraid to return home right now that they have threatened to beat us up if we do not follow them” by withdrawing the complaint, he said after the conference.
Phalla said that during the July 8 public forum, about 10 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.
“They [the villagers who had committed forest crimes] beat me in front District Governor Nou The, and they seized my phone,” he said during the conference.
“It is bad that the authorities would threaten an activist who dares to protect the forest, natural resources and state property,” Phalla said. He added that on the evening of July 8, commune authorities had forced four villagers to thumbprint documents agreeing to withdraw complaints they had filed against officials who had ignored illegal land clearing in the community forest.
“Commune Chief Ang Buntheang come to my home in the evening on 8 July and threatened me to withdraw the complaint,” Phalla said.
“At that time, I agreed because I had no choice and if I declined, the villagers would beat me up at home,” he said.
He said that the following day, local authorities drove him in a police vehicle to the station to thumbprint an agreement saying he would withdraw the complaint.
“I did not [thumbprint] it because I was unconscious upon arriving at the police post” due to injuries sustained in the beating at the forum, Phalla said. “Then they brought me to a provincial referral hospital.”
In 2017, nine villagers including Phalla had filed a complaint to the provincial court against a group of local authorities including the district governor, district and commune police chiefs, commune chief, village chief and director of the provincial environment department accusing them of failing to file a complaint after witnessing a felony, according to Phalla.
However, Ratanakkiri Provincial Police Chief Yin Chamnan on July 17 denied the allegations by Phalla, saying that he had fabricated information.
“I want to briefly say that what Chhorn Phalla raised, it was untruthful information,” Chamnan said before abruptly hanging up the phone.
According to Samutkroam Village Chief Kham Phor Savath, there was no violence at the forum, and no villagers had been intimidated into withdrawing their complaints.
“There was no violence against [Chhorn Phalla],” he said this week. “I also attended the forum but I did not see any beating.”
“He [Phalla] was exaggerating and I do not know how to respond because nothing happened similar to what he said,” Phor Savath replied.
“I have never seen anyone selling community forest land,” he said, adding that Phalla was originally from Kampong Cham province and had been living in the area for six years aftre marrying a Tampoun ethnic minority woman.
Seda Commune Chief Ang Buntheang could not be reached for comment.
Seda Deputy Commune Chief Souk Pache released a video which was shared on a local news website on July 10 in which he said that Phalla had continually interrupted authorities at every local forum to raise the issue of forest crimes.
“So we come to the question of whether commune officials have the right to prevent forest crimes or not?” he said in the video, adding that the National Committee for Forest Crime Prevention under the Environment Ministry should be in charge of the issue.
According to Pache, at the public forum earlier this month, District Governor Nou The asked Phalla to stop talking because he had brought up the same issue repeatedly, then the activist took out his phone to take pictures before walking out of the forum. Phalla immediately called journalists from Radio Free Asia and VOA to report that he had been beaten, Pache added.
He said that the governor thought Phalla was acting inappropriately by calling reporters, so he ordered other villagers who were present to seize his phone.
“Phalla was angry when we took his phone, and then he accused the villagers from four villages of beating him up, but we have done nothing wrong,” Pache said.
Lumphat District Governor Nou The on July 16 referred questions to the provincial police chief.
“As I said, you should come to interview authorities and villagers about how the incident happened,” he said before hanging up the phone.
Another villager, Kham Louk, who also belongs to the Tampoun ethnic minority and lives in Seda commune’s Keng San village, said he fled his home on July 9 when he saw several security guards approaching after he had also attended the forum the previous day. Like Phalla, Louk had filed a complaint against local officials who were involved with the clearing of the community forest in 2017.
“I saw 5 or 6 security guards come to my home, but they did not see me because I was out on the farm,” he said.
“I ran away because I am afraid that some bad people had incited authorities to mistreat us,” Louk said, adding that he returned home on July 12 after the situation had eased.
Although he said he had not been approached recently by any authorities asking him to withdraw his complaint, he heard that some villagers in Samutkroam had thumb printed documents agreeing to do so, adding that he had personally received threats in the past.
Sokha of Adhoc encouraged the public to utilize articles 527 and 528 of the Criminal Code, which ensure the right of victims of an offense to file a complaint and requires that public officials do the same if they have witnessed an offense.
“Intimidation in order to prevent the filing of a complaint that any threat or intimidation made against a victim with a view to persuading him or her not to file a complaint or to withdraw it shall be punishable by imprisonment from 1 to 3 years,” Article 527 reads.
Article 528 says that “Any public official or holder of public elected office who, having knowledge of a felony or a misdemeanor through the exercise or on the occasion of his or her function and omits to inform the judicial authorities shall be punishable by imprisonment from 1 to 3 years.”
Sokha added that Adhoc will continue to carry out research about the right to freedom of assembly at community forums such as the one in Seda commune, and would discuss with the Interior Ministry efforts to improve those rights.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said on July 18 that the ministry has not yet taken any measures in the case in Seda commune because the information has been one-sided.
“We are waiting to see if authorities can verify whether there were any threats as [the villagers] have alleged against [local authorities],” he said.
“I can’t make a conclusion on whether it is true or not [in this case] because it has just been raised by one party,” he said, adding that in general, if intimidation is used to make someone sign a contract against their will, it breaks the law.
“It is not just public officials, but anyone who has forced someone to do something against their will is illegal,” Malin said, urging people to file complaints against anyone who has intimidated them in a way that violates the law.