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Friday, May 11, 2012

Hundreds mourn killed Cambodian activist

VEAL BEI, Cambodia — Hundreds of Cambodians held a memorial service Friday in a remote forest where a prominent environmental activist was shot dead two weeks ago, vowing to keep his legacy alive.

Some 300 villagers whose lives have been affected by deforestation and land grabs lit incense and paid respects at the spot where Chhut Vuthy was gunned down by a military policeman on April 26.

Many of the mourners also held up photographs of the activist with the caption: "I am Chhut Vuthy".

Vuthy, 45, was killed after he refused to hand over photographs of illegal logging to the military policeman. His death rocked the country, turning a spotlight on the increasingly violent nature of land disputes.

Vuthy's supporters said they were determined to protect Cambodia's rapidly dwindling natural riches despite the risks and pledged to continue forest patrols -- an initiative spearheaded by the late activist.

"The people will work to create more Chhut Vuthys, his death is not a threat to us," said Doung Deoum, a farmer from the northwestern province of Siem Reap.

"We will step up our activities against forest crimes," the 60-year-old said, wiping away tears as he watched mourners lay incense sticks and small branches at the site of the activist's death in Veal Bei commune, southwestern Koh Kong.

Vuthy's eldest son Chheuy Oudom Reaksmey, 19, said he was still coming to terms with recent events. "It's painful to see the spot where my father was killed. He died with honour," he told AFP.

The officer who shot Vuthy was then himself accidentally killed with his own weapon when a private security guard tried to disarm him, according to a government probe. The guard has been charged with involuntary homicide.

Campaigners say Cambodia has recently seen a rise in violence against citizens involved in land conflicts, often at the hands of armed government security forces acting in the interests of private companies.

Not including Vuthy's death, the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh has investigated four shooting incidents at protests since the start of the year.

"It's a worrying trend to say the least," Surya Subedi, special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, told reporters in Phnom Penh at the end of his seventh visit to the kingdom during which he focussed on land conflicts.

He blamed the recent spike in violence partly on "an ongoing issue of impunity" in the country.
Subedi added that he was "shocked" by Vuthy's death, and that he had visited his grave earlier in the week and paid his respects to his family.

The government announced on Monday it was temporarily suspending the granting of new land concessions to firms to put the brakes on deforestation and forced evictions, a move Subedi called a "step in the right direction".

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