Citing government intimidation and fears of arrest, three Cambodian environmental activists will skip an appeals court hearing on Tuesday they had earlier requested, saying they will remain in hiding in a neighboring country until the court issues its ruling.
Activist San Mala told RFA’s Khmer Service on Jan. 29 that he and fellow activists Try Sovikea and Sim Somnang will not appear at the Appellate Court’s Jan. 31 hearing on a request they had filed last year to overturn a previous conviction.
“We have no faith in the Cambodian courts,” San Mala said. “In the past, the courts have never given justice to activists or poor [Cambodians] who were in legal conflict with powerful figures or private companies.”
“This is why we will boycott the hearing at the Appellate Court,” he said.
The three activists, members of the Cambodian environmental NGO Mother Nature, were first taken into custody on Aug. 17, 2015 after they failed to appear at a Koh Kong provincial police station to answer questions about their involvement in a protest against two Vietnamese firms engaged in sand-dredging operations.
Dredging in the area had caused pollution and riverbank collapse, as well as reduced fish and crab populations on which local fishermen depend for their livelihoods, the Cambodian environmental group alleged.
Later sentenced to 18 months in jail, the three were released on July 1, 2016 after the remainder of their sentence was suspended, and they immediately lodged an appeal asking that their convictions be overturned.
Speaking to RFA, Mother Nature founder Alejandro Gonzalez Davidson said however that the activists were recently threatened and warned to drop their appeal.
“The three were intimidated by government officials,” Davidson said.
“We now fear that powerful figures, those standing behind the Appellate Court, will order judges to arrest the three and send them back to jail without presentation of evidence or witnesses being called,” he said.
“At last year’s hearing at the Koh Kong provincial court, the court didn’t follow legal procedures. Instead, they just followed orders given by powerful people.”
Meanwhile, a group of 48 Cambodian civil society organizations (CSOs) called in an open letter on Sunday on the Appeals Court to overturn what it called the “wrongful convictions” of the three Mother Nature activists.
“San Mala, Try Sovikea and Sim Somnang are not criminals; they are brave environmental defenders who have made enormous contributions to protecting Cambodia’s precious natural resources,” the group said in its statement.
“[But] in retaliation for their activism, they were convicted on politically motivated charges.”
These convictions must now be overturned, the group said.
Reported by Thai Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Richard Finney.