PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - Three environmental activists were sentenced to 18 months in prison by a court in Koh Kong province Friday for threatening to destroy a sand dredging company’s equipment during a field trip last year.
The trio from the NGO Mother Nature — San Mala, Try Sovikea, and Sim Samnang — was then released, having already served more than 10 months in jail. The judge ruled that the remainder of their sentence would be suspended, but ordered them to pay about $25,000 to the plaintiffs and fines of about $500.
In Kongchet, provincial coordinator for the rights group Licadho, told VOA that Min Makara, the presiding judge in the trial, released the activists on Friday afternoon.
He added that the financial penalties would be a heavy burden for the men.
“The decision to fine so much money was an act of imposing a huge burden on poor people and volunteers working to help society and sacrifice their personal job and families to help society,” he said.
He added that the compensation the company demanded was excessive under the law.
“It did not comply with the law because the accused people should not have been detained for more than four months for a misdemeanor case," he said. "When they were jailed for four months, they should be sent for trial.”
Iv Tray, the deputy prosecutor, declined to comment, referring questions to Judge Min Makara, who also declined to comment.
San Chandara, a Mother Nature representative, said the organization would take legal advice as to whether the large compensation claim could be withdrawn or decreased.
“We will discuss further with our lawyer who works on this case in terms of a civil lawsuit to the company that demanded compensation,” he said.
Try Kimly, 21, the younger sister of Sovikea, said there was no chance the family could afford his share of the payments.
“We think that, as we didn’t damage anything, there is no need to pay,” she said.
The decision to detain three environmentalists came after Mother Nature launched a campaign in July last year to take direct action against sand-dredging companies Direct Access and International Rainbow Company.
Activists and local community members are concerned that the activities of the companies are illegal and also that the unregulated sand dredging causes river bank erosion and a loss of biodiversity.
The anti-sand dredging campaign came on the heels of a successful campaign to stop the construction of the Stung Cheay Areng hydropower dam.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.