UPDATED at 3:12 P.M. EST on 20-08-2015
A court in southwestern Cambodia decided Wednesday to keep three environmental activists in jail while they await trial on criminal charges related to a protest against a company accused of illegal sand dredging, an official from a domestic rights group said.
The trio from the domestic nongovernmental organization Mother Nature — San Mala, 24, Try Sovikea, 26, and Sim Somnang, 29 — were arrested Monday after they failed to appear at a police station to answer questions about their involvement in a protest against the Vietnamese firms International Rainbow Co. Ltd. and Direct Access Company which are engaged in dredging activities in a Koh Kong province estuary.
During the protest, they along with villagers from Thnong village, Kandol commune, and Tameak village, Andong Teuk commune, in Batum Sakor district had boarded and towed two sand-dredging boats owned by the companies.
Police arrested the three activists as they observed sand-dredging activities and charged them with “threats to destroy followed by an order,” which carries a maximum penalty of up to two years in prison.
A judge questioned Sim Somnang at the provincial prison, but postponed discussions with the two others, according to local media reports, as about 100 villagers protested outside the facility and the provincial court, calling for the activists’ release.
More than 50 villagers spent the night in front of the courthouse, even though police threatened to seize their megaphone. They vowed to continue protesting until the court releases the activists.
“After the investigation period, we will not know for sure if the court is going to charge or release them because at this stage the defendants’ lawyers have four months to gather evidence to prove their clients’ innocence,” said In Kong Chit, a provincial coordinator for the Cambodian rights group Licadho, which is providing legal representation to the three men.
Attorneys for the activists will work on finding evidence to support their clients as they await trial, he said.
“We urge the court to drop the charges against them and immediately release them without delay," In Kong Chit told RFA’s Khmer Service.
RFA was unable to obtain comments from the Koh Kong provincial court.
Arrests are 'ridiculous'
Mother Nature maintains that dredging in the area has caused pollution and riverbank collapses as well as reduced fish and crab populations on which local fisherman depend for their livelihoods.
The activists’ arrest occurred after Direct Access filed a complaint against the activists, charging that they caused more than U.S. $100,000 in damage to equipment, and district authorities claimed they created a public disturbance, local media reported.
A spokesman from the Ministry of Mines and Energy said Tuesday that the company was operating legally and had not violated the conditions of its licenses, the reports said.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of Mother Nature, called the arrests of the three activists “ridiculous” and appealed to all Cambodians, especially young people, to continue protecting the country’s environment.
"Police have searched their [the activists’] rented house in Koh Kong and taken pictures without any warrants,” he told RFA. “We are concerned that the police have placed some drugs in there in order to arrest them," he said.
Last February, authorities refused to renew Gonzalez-Davidson’s visa and expelled him from Cambodia.
The Cambodian government started issuing sand-dredging licenses in 2006, although many companies operate illegally without them. Companies engaged in the activity use the sand for construction work and export it to other countries in the region.
Reported by Sok Ry for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.