Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Mother Nature Activists Boycott Second Hearing As Local Authorities Block Supporters From Entering Courtroom

Mother Nature activists meditate outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court having boycotted their second hearing, June 5, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Mother Nature activists meditate outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court having boycotted their second hearing, June 5, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Five out of 10 environmental activists boycotted a hearing after authorities set up barricades to bar several reporters and supporters from entering the Phnom Penh Municipal Court compound on Wednesday. The defendants were charged with insulting the King and plotting to overthrow the government in 2021.

Former Mother Nature activists Yim Leanghy, Thon Ratha, Ly Chandaravuth, Phuong Keoreaksmey and Long Kunthea boycotted the full day hearing on Wednesday while five other defendants did not appear in court. 

The defendants, dressed in white outfits, stood outside the court, lit incense and offered flowers in prayer to the souls of “Khmer heros” to bless their case, asserting that they did not commit the crimes they were charged with.

However, presiding judge Oukreth Kunthea decided to carry on with the trial, claiming that the “[five] defendants have abandoned their rights” to exonerate themselves of the alleged crime. The judge added that the court had already informed them of the hearing while the police saw the defendants arriving in court but refusing to enter the courtroom. 

“It’s their right to appear [at the hearing] or abandon their right to exculpate their accusation but they don’t have the right to demand that the public [be allowed] to attend the hearing. I am not allowing that,” presiding judge Kunthea said.

Deputy prosecutor Seng Heang said the defendants had “ill-intention to disturb the hearing”, calling on the judge to continue with the trial without their presence.

Heang declared that four defendants – Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, Penh Piseth, Vei Reaksa and Pork Khoeuy – were absent, adding that the court had already issued arrest warrants for them. 

Five Mother Nature activists, who gathered outside the barricade which was set up by the authorities to block supporters from entering the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, boycotted their second hearing, June 5, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

In the morning, the court read out the five defendants’ replies to questions by the police, prosecutor and investigating judge in September 2021, which were centered on the organizational structure of Mother Nature, its activities and overseas funding. There were also questions regarding a commentary by Gonzalez-Davidson with a foreign radio, which allegedly incited people to hate the government and topple it. 

“I was not a member of Mother Nature. I have only been a volunteer in the movement,” according to Long Kunthea, whose answer to an investigating judge in September 2021 was read by a court clerk.

Kunthea said she joined Mother Nature to protect the environment, adding that her activism was an act of “constructive criticism, not to incite people to hate the government”.

When asked by the investigating judge if she knew about the money transfer from the United States into her account, she replied, “I don’t know.” 

Another defendant, Thon Ratha, – whose reply was rendered in court by the clerk – apparently declined to answer all the questions asked by the investigating judge and repeatedly said, “I did not commit [anything] unlawful. I am innocent.”

Defendant Ly Chandaravuth told CamboJA News that the court continued the hearing and “just reading [our] answers is not right according to the law”.

“That is the fault of the court or shows that the court is not independent, which has pushed a procedure forward without questioning the accused person,” he said.

“I am a person who respects the law. I don’t attend illegal hearings,” Chandaravuth added.

NGO rights group Licadho operations director Am Sam Ath, who monitored the trial, expressed that the court should make the effort to ensure that the accused persons were present during the trial, and guaranteed their right to a fair trial.

“It’s a discretion of the judge but if we look at it from the viewpoint of human rights and that a fair and transparent process [is crucial] in a trial, [then] it should be attended by all parties, especially accused people so that they can debate [with] each other to seek justice and ensure equal rights before the law,” he said.

He added that if the defendants were present in court, they have a right to defend themselves against the charges while their lawyers can question them so that they can be exculpated.

Later in the afternoon, the court was shown evidence by the police relating to the procedure which led to the arrests of the defendants.

“[T]he police found that the group had secretly transferred money and [they] had tricked,” said Chin Vannak, a police officer with the Interior Ministry’s Internal Security Department, when questioned by deputy prosecutor Heang regarding a conversation via Signal, a social messaging app.

“There were clearly-managed structures and roles [in the organization],” Vannak said.

Five Mother Nature activists pray for justice after boycotting their second hearing when local authorities blocked the access to the court to prevent supporters from entering, June 5, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang) 

In May 2021, Gonzalez-Davidson and four other environmental activists were found guilty on incitement charges and sentenced to 20 months’ imprisonment for planning a one-woman march to raise awareness of the impact of filling in lakes in the capital.

Mother Nature Cambodia was deregistered by the Ministry of Interior in 2017, but has remained active within Cambodia.

The trial continues on June 11.