The Phnom Penh Court has blocked three environmental activists, currently on probation for convictions related to their advocacy, from leaving the country to receive a prestigious international award.
In a letter published on Monday, the court’s prosecutor Chroeng Khmao stated that the trip was “not necessary” and that the activists were “not allowed to go abroad.”
Last week, Thon Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phoun Keoreaksmey with the Cambodian environmental activist group Mother Nature received an invitation to a November ceremony in Sweden to accept the Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel. The group has worked to expose environmental destruction in the country over the last ten years, including logging and sand mining.
“Undeterred by threats, harassment and arrests, Mother Nature Cambodia has emerged as a powerful voice for environmental preservation and democracy in Cambodia,” a press release from Right Livelihood states.
The three activists were arrested in 2020 and convicted with incitement for their involvement in planning a one-woman march to raise awareness of the impact of filling in lakes for development. They were released in 2021 after serving 14 months in prison, but are still under court supervision until 2025.
They were also handed a new charge of ‘plotting’ in 2021 in connection with an ongoing case concerning the documentation of sewage being released into the Tonle Sap River.
“This is a cruel thing for the judiciary in Cambodia to deny us as young people working on the protection of natural resources and the environment,” said Ratha, one of the award winners. “The reason that the prosecutor gave, ‘not necessary,’ that’s a ridiculous reason because we were going to go abroad to get a global award that is not easy for any group or individual or country to get.”
He believes the decision will give the international community the impression that Prime Minister Hun Manet is following in the footsteps of his father, and will negatively impact Cambodia. While “liberal countries” are getting along with the new government now, he said this could change when restrictions on freedoms continue.
“The case against us as Mother Nature is clearly a political issue,” he said “It is a restriction on the rights and freedoms of young people who dare to tell the truth, dare to be angry with their own national wealth, dare to expose corruption and the inactivity of officials on the extraction of natural resources.”
Appearing on stage to receive the award could have been a source of inspiration for young Cambodians, he said, showing that people from a small country can do great things. The activists plan to have representatives accept the award in person on their behalf.
“Right Livelihood awards, supports and honours Laureates regardless of whether they can attend the Award Presentation,” said Sydney Nelson, a communications officer for the organization.
Soeng Senkaruna, the human rights group Adhoc’s senior investigator, said Adhoc was very sorry to see the court’s rejection of the request and still insists that the court should be more open-minded.
“This decision is one that discourages young people who love natural resources and actively participate in their defense,” he said. “We are all Cambodians, but we do not value the Cambodian youth who protect all natural resources.” Y Rin and Plang Sophal, spokespeople for Phnom Penh Municipal Court, both declined to comment.