Ten Cambodian environmental activists receive prison sentences of 6-8 years each

Cambodia's government has long been accused of using the judicial system to persecute critics and political opponents

Updated - July 02, 2024 10:33 pm IST

Published - July 02, 2024 10:15 pm IST - Phnom Penh

An environmental activist, front right, raises his V-sign together with supporters as he leads a protest near Phnom Penh Municipality Court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Ten members of a nonviolent environmental activist group in Cambodia were convicted on Tuesday on charges of conspiracy to commit a crime, receiving prison sentences of six years each.

An environmental activist, front right, raises his V-sign together with supporters as he leads a protest near Phnom Penh Municipality Court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Ten members of a nonviolent environmental activist group in Cambodia were convicted on Tuesday on charges of conspiracy to commit a crime, receiving prison sentences of six years each. | Photo Credit: AP

Ten members of a Cambodian environmental activist group that campaigned against destructive infrastructure projects and alleged corruption were each sentenced on Tuesday to six years in prison on charges of conspiring against the state.

Three of the members of the group Mother Nature Cambodia were also convicted of insulting Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, for which they were sentenced to an additional two years in prison, giving them a total of eight years behind bars.

Only five of the defendants attended the trial and the others were convicted in absentia. They included four Cambodians whose whereabouts are unknown and Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national who co-founded the group and was deported in 2015 and barred from ever returning to Cambodia.

The five who attended the trial were arrested outside the court after the verdict and sentences were issued. They had marched to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with supporters, dressed in traditional white clothing worn at funerals, which they said represented the death of justice in Cambodia.

Phun Keoraksmey, a 22-year-old member of the group whose mother was by her side, said she was prepared to go to prison.

“But I never want to go back to jail because I never did anything wrong. But I will never run from what I am responsible for. I chose this way, I chose this path,” she said.

The Cambodian human rights group Licadho called the verdict “very disappointing.” “Today, the court has ruled that youth activists fighting for environmental protections and democratic principles are in effect acting against the state,” it said. “It is astounding that Cambodian authorities are convicting youth activists who are advocating for clean water in Phnom Penh, protecting mangrove forests in Koh Kong and warning against the privatisation of land in protected areas and presenting it as an attack against the state.” The group last year was the co-winner of the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes characterised as the “Alternative Nobel,” issued by a Stockholm-based foundation to organisations and individuals working to “safeguard the dignity and livelihoods of communities around the world.” Three members of the group who were in jail at that time were denied permission by Cambodian court authorities to travel to Sweden to accept the award.

Mother Nature, founded in 2012, was deregistered as a nongovernmental organisation by the Cambodian government in 2017 but its members vowed to carry on its work, with some serving jailtime in recent years.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch last month accused Cambodian authorities of trying the activists on politically motivated charges “to muzzle criticism of governmental policies.” “For more than a decade, Mother Nature has campaigned against environmentally destructive infrastructure projects, exposed corruption in the management of Cambodia's natural resources, and mobilised young Cambodians to defend the country's dwindling biodiversity,” it said in a statement. It noted that Cambodia has one of the world's highest deforestation rates and levels of wildlife trafficking.

Gonzalez-Davidson and two other defendants were charged with defaming the king in statements made during an online meeting.

Cambodia's government has long been accused of using the judicial system to persecute critics and political opponents. The government insists the country observes the rule of law under an electoral democracy, but parties seen as challengers to the ruling Cambodian People's Party have been dissolved by the courts or had their leaders harassed.

Under former Prime Minister Hun Sen, who held power for almost four decades, the government was widely criticised for human rights abuses that included suppression of freedom of speech and association. His son, Hun Manet, succeeded him last year, but there have been few signs of political liberalisation.

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