Cambodian Court Sentences Environmental Activists to Hefty Prison Terms

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Cambodian Court Sentences Environmental Activists to Hefty Prison Terms

The 10 activists, four of whom were arrested outside the court, are members of the group Mother Nature, which was deregistered in 2017.

Cambodian Court Sentences Environmental Activists to Hefty Prison Terms

An environmental activist, center, is escorted by police personnel near Phnom Penh Municipal Court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, July 2, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Heng Sinith

A Cambodian court yesterday sentenced 10 environmental activists to lengthy prison terms, after convicting them of insulting the king and plotting to overthrow the government.

The activists were members of Mother Nature, a youth-led Cambodian environmental group that has led a number of campaigns against the despoliation of the natural environment over the past decade.

Three defendants, Yim Leanghy, Sun Ratha, and Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the Spanish national who co-founded Mother Nature in 2013, were sentenced to eight years in prison and fined $2,500 each on the two charges. The remaining seven activists were sentenced to six years in prison on the plotting charge.

Arrest warrants were immediately issued for the 10 activists. Four of the activists, who have attended the various trial hearings – Thun Ratha, 32; Long Kunthea, 26; Phuon Keoraksmey, 23; and Ly Chandaravuth, 24 – were immediately arrested outside the court. Dressed in funerary white, the group had led a peaceful march to the court building in Phnom Penh, where they held a vigil with family and supporters.

As the local advocacy group Licadho reported, around 50 police and plainclothes personnel descended on the four after the verdict and “violently dragged them into waiting cars, as fellow activists shouted for their release. At least two of the Mother Nature activists were dragged by their necks.” (Footage of the arrests is available here.)

Prior to his arrest, Chandaravuth, told reporters that the group were ready for the verdict and would accept it without fear. “Even if we go to prison, our hearts will remain with the Cambodian people. We’ll keep their interest in mind and continue to actively monitor the situation in Cambodia from the prison,” he said, according to CambojaNews, a local news site. “If we are inactive and do not care about social issues, our future will be miserable.”

Gonzalez-Davidson was not present at the hearings; he was deported from Cambodia in 2015 and has been consistently denied permission to re-enter the country. Four others, who have not attended any of the trial hearings, were also convicted in absentia. The whereabouts of Yim Leanghy, who has attended most of the hearings but was not present outside the court yesterday morning, are unknown.

Since its establishment, Mother Nature has worked to expose the environmental impacts of business projects, often connected to high-ranking members of the government and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. The group has led social media-driven campaigns to halt a hydropower project in the Cardamom Mountains and expose the rampant illegal dredging of sand from the coastal estuaries in the country’s southwest. It has also campaigned against the filling of lakes in and around Phnom Penh, which have led to considerable flooding, and the flow of effluents and sewage into the ocean in Sihanoukville, on the country’s south coast.

As a result, the organization has faced nearly constant pressure from the Cambodian authorities. In September 2017, the same month that the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was arrested and charged with treason, Mother Nature was dissolved and stripped of its NGO status by the Ministry of Interior. In September 2020, Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoraksmey, and Thun Ratha were arrested while organizing a one-woman protest outside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s imposing villa in central Phnom Penh. The following May, they were sentenced to prison terms of 18-20 months for “incitement to commit a felony or disturb social order.”

Yesterday’s verdicts related to comments made by the activists during a Zoom meeting in May 2021, a video clip of which was later posted on a Facebook account and came to be seen as “corroborating evidence” of the group’s plot to topple the government. The clip from the Zoom meeting showed the defendants allegedly using “disrespectful language” about former Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni. As CambojaNews reported, the Facebook page was titled “Kamchatchunkbot,” Khmer for “defeat the traitor.”

Just days prior, four members of the group had been arrested in Phnom Penh, reportedly for filming the flow of raw sewage in the Tonle Sap river. Charges against the other six followed subsequently.

The verdicts offer a further sign, should any be needed, of the continuities between the short tenure of Prime Minister Hun Manet and that of his father Hun Sen, who handed over the reins of power last August, after nearly four decades in power. Nearly a year into Manet’s tenure, there has been scant evidence that the Western-educated leader will bring any thaw to the chilly political climate in Cambodia.

In a statement yesterday, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch described the verdict as “devastating” for the 10 activists. It “also sends an appalling message to Cambodia’s youth that the government will side with special interests over the environment every chance it gets,” the group said.