On trial at the Koh Kong Provincial Court on Wednesday, anti-dam activist Ven Vorn denied the illegal logging charge laid against him last year over his involvement in the construction of a wooden community center, his lawyer said.
In October, Mr. Vorn was arrested and charged with illegal logging, which carries a prison sentence of up to five years, over wood he used to help build the community center for his village in the Areng Valley. Rights groups have accused the state of suing Mr. Vorn because he had joined several protests against a government-backed plan to dam the valley for a hydropower project.
Mr. Vorn was also charged with destroying criminal evidence. But after Wednesday’s trial, deputy prosecutor Ou Tray said he had requested that the charge be dropped.
“I asked the presiding judge to drop one charge against Mr. Ven Vorn because I think the [evidence] is not enough to accuse him. But we should keep the charge of collecting forest products,” he said, declining to comment further.
Mr. Vorn’s lawyer, Ith Mathoura, said that during the trial her client denied logging the wood that was used to build the community center.
“He explained to the court that he did not cut the trees in the protected forest; he just bought the wood from someone else,” she said.
But even if he had, Ms. Mathoura said, ethnic Chong villagers in the area were legally permitted to use the surrounding protected forest for their personal needs.
“He built a house for the use of the minority people in the community, so he is not required to get permission from authorities,” she said.
In Kongchit, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, who attended the trial, said Mr. Vorn told the court that he had been in a hurry to build the community center to serve the rapidly growing number of tourists visiting the valley, and turned to an unlicensed seller.
“Mr. Ven Vorn told the presiding judge that he bought the wood from a dealer because the area did not have a place that sold wood legally, so he bought the wood from someone else because he had to buy the wood quickly to build the community center,” he said.
According to Mr. Kongchit, Mr. Vorn also said that Thma Baing district authorities approved the construction of the center but had no documents to prove it.
Presiding Judge Ang Chanda said he would announce a verdict on March 3.
In the year leading up to his arrest, Mr. Vorn was an outspoken critic of the proposed Stung Cheay Areng dam—which would flood much of the valley and force hundreds of Chong families to leave their ancestral home—and joined many protests organized by the NGO Mother Nature.
The government has accused Mother Nature of using illegal tactics to oppose both the dam and sand dredging in Koh Kong. The NGO’s co-founder, Spanish national Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, was deported a year ago after the government refused to renew his visa because of an unauthorized checkpoint he helped set up along a road leading to the Areng Valley.