Global Witness welcomes the release from Police custody today of Goldman Prize winning forest protection activist Ouch Leng and three other environmental defenders and calls on the Cambodian authorities to drop all investigations into their activities.
“The release of Ouch Leng, Khem Soky, Srey Thei and Men Mat is a huge relief. But the fact that they remain under investigation as suspects maintains the threat against them and other environmental defenders,” said Man-Kwun Chan, Campaign Leader, Land and Environmental Defenders at Global Witness.
“The overall message is that Cambodian authorities are more interested in persecuting Cambodian activists working to safeguard their country’s most precious natural heritage than protecting and supporting their vital work. All judicial proceedings against Ouch Leng and his colleagues must be ended unconditionally and without delay.”
Ouch Leng, together with Khem Soky and Srey Thei, who are members of the Prey Lang Community Network, and Men Mat, another forest protection activist, were detained on Friday 13th March by guards working for the Think Biotech Company, which holds an agribusiness concession on the edge of Prey Lang, the largest remaining lowland evergreen forest in mainland Southeast Asia. The company guards subsequently handed them over to the Cambodian Police. Cambodian civil society groups report that Men Mat was physically assaulted by company workers inside the Think Biotech compound. The case carries disturbing echoes of the collusion between private company guards and state security forces in the notorious murder of environmental defender Chut Wutty in 2012.
The harassment of Ouch Leng and the Prey Lang Community Network comes less than a month after hundreds of community members, monks and environmental activists were prevented by masked and armed Ministry of Environment rangers from carrying out an annual tree-blessing ceremony in Prey Lang. Over a hundred Cambodian grassroots organisations denounced the Ministry’s actions as “an indefensible restriction on the community’s freedom of movement [that] harms conservation efforts in the forest.”
Think Biotech and its associated company Angkor Plywood were recently the subject of an official investigation after the Ministry of Environment received reports of illegal logging from the offices of the EU and USAID in Cambodia in October. The Forest Administration, whose corruption and involvement in illegal logging Global Witness has repeatedly exposed, later cleared the companies of any wrongdoing.
Lu Chu Chang, a Taiwanese businessman who is director of both firms, has a long association with illegal logging and violation of local people’s rights in Cambodia. Back in 2001, Global Witness investigations revealed the company he then ran, Cherndar Plywood, was unlawfully cutting villagers’ resin trees in neighbouring Preah Vihear Province.“The detention and investigation of Ouch Leng and his colleagues raises the question of why the Cambodian government is defending the interests of a firm that has faced credible accusations of illegal logging and whose director has a long association with forest destruction in Cambodia,” said Man-Kwun Chan. “The authorities should rather focus on the reports of illegal logging by Think Biotech and the involvement of the company’s private security force in abducting citizens seeking to uphold Cambodian laws aimed at protecting the country’s forests.”
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