Cambodia: Free Environmental Activists

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should immediately drop baseless conspiracy and “insulting the king” charges against four environmental activists affiliated with the Mother Nature Cambodia environmental group and release the three in pretrial detention, Human Rights Watch said today. On June 16, 2021, the police arrested Sun Ratha, 26, Ly Chandaravuth, 22, and Seth Chhivlimeng, 25, in Phnom Penh, and Yim Leanghy, 32, in Kandal province, apparently for their documentation that raw sewage has entered the Tonle Sap River near the Royal Palace. On June 20, the court charged Ratha and Chandaravuth with “conspiracy” and lese majeste (“insulting the king”) under articles 453 and 437 bis of Cambodia’s penal code, and Leanghy with “conspiracy.” If convicted, they face between 5 and 10 years in prison, and fines of up to 10 million riels (US$2,500).

The authorities also charged in absentia a Spanish national, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the founder of Mother Nature Cambodia, who had been deported in 2015. Chhivlimeng was released without charge. “The Cambodian government has stepped up its campaign to silence activists peacefully advocating to protect the environment,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Foreign governments, the United Nations country team, and international donors should call on the Cambodian authorities to drop their absurd charges against the environmental activists and publicly condemn any further clampdown on peaceful activism.” An Interior Ministry spokesperson alleged that the authorities had proof that “rebellious” Mother Nature Cambodia had used foreign funding to try to topple the government, but did not make any evidence public. This case followed earlier harassment of five Mother Nature Cambodia activists. On May 5, the Phnom Penh court convicted three environmental activists – Long Kunthea, 22, Phuon Keoraksmey, 19, and Thun Ratha, 29 – of “incitement to commit a felony or disturb social order,” articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s penal code.

The judge sentenced them to between 18 and 20 months in prison as well as a fine of 4 million riels ($1,000) for their peaceful activism protesting the authorities’ filling-in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tamok lake. All three activists had been arrested in September 2020 and spent almost eight months in pretrial detention. Gonzalez-Davidson and Chea Kunthin, another activist, were also convicted in absentia and sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Cambodian authorities have stepped up their crackdown on youth and environmental activists engaged in peaceful activism and protest.

The government has often used draconian new laws to arrest and prosecute activists in an apparent attempt to silence their voices and shut down their activism. In March 2020 and early 2021, the authorities arrested environmental activists affiliated with the Prey Lang Community Network along with a prominent environmentalist and lawyer, Ouch Leng, to stop their efforts to document illegal logging and deforestation within the Prey Lang forest.

The United States government, in part because of the harassment of environmental activists, announced on June 17 that it would halt over $100 million in funding for the Cambodian government’s “Greening Prey Lang” project.

The funds are being redirected to civil society groups working on environmental protection. Human Rights Watch has documented cases of nearly 70 current political prisoners, including members of the political opposition, youth and environmental activists, trade union leaders, and journalists who are awaiting trial or are serving prison sentences. Many other activists have fled Cambodia to seek refuge abroad. Because of the higher risks of getting Covid-19 in prison, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly appealed to the Cambodian authorities to conditionally release pretrial detainees not held for violent offenses.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and civil society groups have often criticized the government’s routine use of pretrial detention. “Cambodia’s highly politicized courts mean that the environmental activists charged have no chance of getting a fair trial,” Robertson said. “Only international pressure on the Cambodian government holds out the possibility of saving these activists from unjust prison sentences.” .

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