(Bangkok, March 21, 2020) – Cambodian authorities should end the politically motivated investigations of four environmental activists looking into illegal logging in Kratie province, Human Rights Watch said today, the International Day of Forests. The authorities should investigate a Taiwanese-Cambodian company whose employees allegedly detained the activists, including the prominent environmentalist Ouch Leng, and assaulted one of them.
On March 13, 2020, security guards allegedly from the company Think Biotech took into custody Leng, director of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF), his associate Man Mat, and Khem Soky and Srey Thei of the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), while they were investigating alleged illegal logging. The security guards held the activists incommunicado overnight. The police questioned the four and released them on March 16, saying they would continue to investigate the activists for criminal offenses.
“The Cambodian authorities should end their abusive investigation of four environmental activists who for years have confronted illegal logging activities at great personal risk,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should stop using politicized courts and repressive laws to silence activists and to protect corrupt officials and businesses.”
At about 9 a.m. on March 13, at least a half dozen security guards who said they worked for Think Biotech detained the four activists near the company’s sawmill compound within the company’s concession, which borders the protected area of the Prey Lang forest south of Stung Treng province. The guards questioned them and did not allow them to leave or contact anyone. They then transported the four to another compound owned by the company that is locally known as Dombouk Sor in Sambor district, Kratie province, holding the activists there overnight.
Witnesses alleged that the security guards physically assaulted Man Mat at the company compound, causing a bleeding head injury.
Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Think Biotech on March 18, seeking their response to the incident and any steps they may have taken to address the situation. The company has not responded.
On March 14 at about 3 p.m., the police arrived at the compound and took the four activists to the Sambor district police station, holding them overnight. On March 15, the Kratie provincial prosecutor questioned Ouch Leng, and the next day questioned the other three activists.
The provincial prosecutor ordered the four men released on March 16 without charges but indicated he would continue investigations into unspecified crimes they allegedly committed.
The authorities have been treating the four activists as suspects under court investigation. The authorities compelled the activists to hand over all documents and information from the camera, computer, phones, and memory cards they had been carrying. The prosecutor also indicated he was investigating the alleged assault against Man Mat.
The prosecutor suggested that the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force’s legal status was in jeopardy and ordered Ouch Leng to submit paperwork to the Interior Ministry to clarify the organization’s directorship. Leng has headed CHRTF since 2013 and registered the organization with the Interior Ministry before 2015, when the government adopted the controversial Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO).
The lingering legal investigation and threat of administrative actions against CHRTF creates significant obstacles for the four activists to conduct their work and activism without fear of harassment, Human Rights Watch said. The government has repeatedly used the broadly and vaguely worded LANGO against grassroots groups such as Ouch Leng’s.
Before a Taiwanese and a Cambodian bought Think Biotech Co. Ltd. in 2018, it was a subsidiary of the South Korean explosives and weapons producers, Hanwha Corporation. In 2012, the Cambodian government granted Think Biotech a 37,000-hectare forestry concession, with the stated aim of restoring a “degraded” forest at the edge of the Prey Lang forest. However, villagers and other local observers have repeatedly accused the company of cutting down protected resin trees used by villagers, and logging inside protected areas.
This has led the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) to regularly protest against the operations of Think Biotech, contending that the company is conducting its operations without any consultations with affected communities. The four activists had been collecting information about alleged illegal logging by Think Biotech. The authorities confiscated the information when they arrested the activists.
In February, the PLCN claimed the Prey Lang forest had lost 41,758 hectares – approximately 10 percent of the forest – to deforestation between 2001 and 2018. It said that 4,536 hectares were lost in 2018 alone. Neth Pheaktra, the spokesperson for the Environment Ministry, denied the allegations, claiming the report was “polluting information,” “politically motivated,” and “untrue.” He claimed the PLCN was not registered with the Interior Ministry, similar to the accusation against the CHRTF.
The Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, designated as such in 2016, spans the provinces of Kratie, Stung Treng, Kampong Thom, and Preah Vihear, and covers 431,683 hectares.
In late February, the Environment Ministry deployed armed rangers to prevent hundreds of community members, monks, and environmental activists from entering parts of the Prey Lang’s protected forest area for an annual tree-blessing ceremony.
“The authorities should be grateful to activists trying to protect Cambodia’s remaining forests instead of throwing up roadblocks to their activities,” Robertson said. “Donors and others invested in protecting Cambodia’s environment should call on the government to hold officials and companies breaking the law to account and support the brave environmental activists who may be the difference between a protected forest and a wasteland.”