Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

R’kiri environmental activist imprisoned for allegedly clearing forest land

Environmental activist Chhorn Phalla, who was sent to pre-trial detention on Monday, speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh on July 16, 2020. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Environmental activist Chhorn Phalla, who was sent to pre-trial detention on Monday, speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh on July 16, 2020. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Environmental activist Chhorn Phalla was arrested and placed in pretrial detention in Ratanakiri province on Monday on charges of clearing state forest land dating back to 2020. Phalla had returned to the province in February after being allegedly attacked and beaten at a public forum in July last year.

Provincial court spokesman Keo Pisoth confirmed that investigating judge Chhun Chanseiha had ordered Phalla to be sent to pretrial detention.

“He has now been sent to prison on charges of illegally encroaching on state forest land,” he said.

Deputy governor and provincial spokesperson Nhem Sam Oeun said that the activist’s arrest followed an arrest warrant issued in relation to the clearing of state land in Lumphat district in 2019 and 2020. He told CamboJA that the lawsuit had been filed by both villagers and environmental officials.

The 42-year-old environmental activist left Samutkroam village in Seda commune with his family in July last year after allegedly being beaten up 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.

His 37-year-old wife Kham Salong, a member of the Tumpoun ethnic minority, told CamboJA on Monday that her husband was innocent of the charges against him.

“He did nothing wrong related to encroaching on state land,” she said. She added that both she and her husband had been cultivating about nine hectares of land they had inherited from their parents.

Salong said that Phalla had been told by a security guard to go to the commune police station to correct his Khmer ID card for voting in the upcoming commune election. Upon arrival, he was taken to the district police station at around 10AM.

“It is unjust, because they came to arrest him without showing an arrest warrant,” she said.

Lam Eng, the brother-in-law who accompanied Phalla to the commune police station, said that three officials came to arrest the activist on arrival and drove him away in a pick-up truck.

“I was kicked out from the police station and asked to return home,” he said.

Den Khornny, provincial coordinator at rights Adhoc, who is monitoring the case, said he was disappointed that the activist had been arrested without being shown a warrant or told why he was being detained.

“This arrest seems to violate the procedure by not showing the arrest warrant,” he said.

Speaking to CamboJA in may, Phalla said that he and his family had returned to Samuthkroam village in February after having their safety guaranteed by the government’s bodyguard department.

“I met with relevant officials to inform them of my presence and secure my safety,” he said. He told CamboJA that since his return, he had not been harmed by any of the local villagers who had previously attacked him.

Following the violence at the community forum held on July 8 in Lumphat district’s Seda commune last year, the activist lodged a lawsuit against six local officials and 10 villagers for allegedly committing acts of violence and threats against his life to intimidate him into withdrawing a complaint.

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.

Adhoc president Ny Sokha said that he believed Phalla’s arrest was meant to silence the voices of environmental activists who were working to protect Cambodia’s forests and natural resources.

“I think it is unreasonable to arrest him on charges of clearing forest land,” he said. “A defender of natural resources becoming the suspect, it isn’t right,” he said.

Sokha maintained that he believed Phalla had never encroached on state forest land, but instead had been actively protesting the destruction of state property by filing lawsuits against officials who had been destroying natural forest resources.

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.