Noted environmentalist Ouch Leng and three activists were arrested and detained in Kratie province on Friday, with the court continuing to question the four over possible charges relating to “breaking and entering a dwelling.”
The Kratie Provincial Court questioned the four environmental activists on Sunday after Sambo district police arrested them when they were investigating illegal logging inside the Think Biotech land concession in the Prey Lang protected area.
The four activists are Ouch Leng, head of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force and the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize winner; Khem Soky and Srey Thei, from the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN); and Men Mat, who was physically assaulted by company workers while inside the Think Biotech compound on March 13.
Soeng Senkaruna, an investigator with rights group Adhoc, said the four activists were questioned by two prosecutors all day Sunday, which may continue into Monday.
He said a brief meeting with Ouch Leng revealed that prosecutors were questioning the activist in relation to Article 229 of the Criminal Code, for “breaking and entering into dwelling place” and Article 360 relating to “theft” under aggravating circumstances.
“Yes, we met Ouch Leng for a lunch break. He told us that the prosecutor had asked him about two articles of the Penal Code, Articles 299 and 360, including one about the [NGO] Association Law,” Sen Karuna said.
While the four activists have not been officially charged with a crime, Article 299 holds an up to one-year prison sentence, whereas the more serious charge of theft under aggravating circumstances holds a prison sentence of 15 to 30 years.
Aggravating circumstances under Article 360 requires for “violence intentionally causing the death of the victim,” though police and government officials have not indicated any death in the activists’ attempt to uncover illegal logging operations in the concession.
VOA Khmer could not reach representatives at Think Biotech or officials at Kratie Provincial Court.
Chhay Kim Khoeun, spokesperson for the National Police, did not provide additional details about the arrest, but only confirmed that police officers were working on the case and would provide information later.
“We don’t know if they are legal environmentalists or community officials, and have no paper to prove it yet,” he said.
Activists from several NGOs, including monks, congregated outside the Kratie court over the weekend, requesting the release of the four activists.
Nay Vanda, director of rights NGO coalition CHRAC, said he had been monitoring the peaceful protests and marches calling for the release of the four activists.
“While we are monitoring the interrogation process, there are environmental activists and youth activists marching around Kratie's markets and towns calling for their release,” Nay Vanda said.
On Saturday, 24 independent civil society representatives released a joint statement on the arrest of the activists, calling the physical assault by Think Biotech security guards an “abuse of power,” calling for the company to be held responsible for the attack.
The civil society groups also said they viewed these arrests as “a threat to environmental and forest activists, who are peacefully monitoring and reporting on deforestation activities in Prey Lang and other forested areas,” adding that Cambodian laws encouraged citizens to actively participate in the protection of natural resources.