Group urges probe into attack on Cambodian forest activist

AP News
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Posted: Apr 05, 2016 6:41 AM

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A leading international environmental group has called on the Cambodian government to investigate an attack on a young forest activist who was slashed with a machete while she slept in a hammock after patrolling for illegal loggers.

Global Witness said Phan Sopheak, 25, was injured on her feet in the March 26 attack by unidentified perpetrators in Kratie province. Phan Sophek is a member of the Prey Lang Community Network, a grassroots movement in northeastern Cambodia. Its members said the assailants were trying to cut her throat, Global Witness said.

"Cambodia's forests have become like a piggy bank for Cambodia's elites and their cronies, who routinely flout forest protection laws to pillage them for valuable timber, or sell off the land illegally for mining and agribusiness concessions," said Josie Cohen, a campaigner at Global Witness, which investigates economic networks behind environmental destruction.

Kratie province deputy police chief Oum Phy said Tuesday that they had "no indication at all who the perpetrators are." He said three of the more than 50 colleagues who were on the patrol have been interviewed by the police.

Phan Sopheak told The Associated Press that she still could not walk or move her feet because of her injuries. She said she had been transferred from a hospital in Kratie province to a private clinic in Phnom Penh late last month. She is one of a group of activists to receive the U.N. Equator Prize at the 2015 Paris climate summit, an award given for outstanding achievements in sustainable development.

Activists say members of the Prey Lang network have suffered regular harassment from Cambodian courts, police and soldiers, as well as local officials involved in the timber business. The group is made up largely of indigenous activists who live in and around the Prey Lang forest and rely on it for their food, medicine and jobs.

"Once I have recovered, I will continue my patrolling normally," Phan Sophek said. "I am scared but I am not defeated by the illegal loggers."

"Prey Lang is our life. If there's no Prey Lang we will die," she said. "This forest provided us water for rice and we all get fruit, resin and other things for survival."

Illegal logging is rampant in Cambodia, and often occurs under the protection of government agencies or influential people. At least five deaths have been linked to logging since 2007. In late February, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said he has authorized helicopters to fire rockets at smugglers of illegally cut timber, but did not explain how illegal loggers might be distinguished from the air.

In April 2012, prominent environmentalist Chut Wuthy was fatally shot in southwest Cambodia's Koh Kong province after taking two journalists to look at a logging camp there.