Five environmental activists were sentenced to up to 20 months prison on incitement charges by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday, over plans for a one-woman march to raise awareness of the impact of filling in lakes for development in the capital.
Mother Nature co-founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson and activist Thon Ratha were sentenced to 20 months for their roles in the campaign, while Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoreaksmey and Chea Kuntin were sentenced to 18 months, defense lawyer Sam Chamroeun said, in what one rights group called “the government’s continued vendetta against” the group.
“We are disappointed and we can’t accept this decision,” he said, adding that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict and that he would discuss taking the case to the Appeal Court.
Gonzalez-Davidson – who was expelled from Cambodia in 2015 over his activism – and Kuntin were sentenced in absentia and warrants issued for their arrest, while Ratha, Kunthea and Keoreaksmey were present in court, having been held in Prey Sar prison since their September arrests.
Each was ordered to pay a fine of 4 million riel, about $1000.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Y Rin and presiding judge Li Sokha could not be reached for comment.
The convictions are the latest blow to Mother Nature, which had previously seen five members jailed in relation to their activism and deregistered itself as a non-profit in 2017 to avoid being subject to the controversial NGO law.
“Today’s convictions are part of the Cambodian government’s continued vendetta against Mother Nature, a thorn in the government’s side that the officials are now moving to destroy through bogus criminal charges,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Ratha, Kunthea and Keoreaksmey were arrested in September over social media posts about plans for Kunthea, a 22-year-old chemistry student and school teacher, to march to the prime minister’s house to raise awareness about the environmental impacts of infilling Boeng Tamok lake in northwestern Phnom Penh for a development project.
The trio were charged with direct incitement to commit a felony or to disturb social security, under articles 494 and 495 of the criminal code.
“This verdict is a message to other environmental activists,” said Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, calling on the government to encourage, rather than prosecute, youths attempting to protect Cambodia’s natural resources.
Pat Reaksmey, 30, said that her husband, Ratha, had only ever acted in the interests of Cambodian people, nature and the nation.
“It is very unfair because people who have been destroying natural resources are wealthy, but the protectors are behind bars,” she said.
“The court isn’t independent; they are under orders of politicians.”
Founded in 2013, Mother Nature has consistently battled with officials and well-connected businessmen that it links to environment crimes ad mismanagement, including the expose of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of sand stolen from Cambodian waterways and sold in Singapore.
Gonzalez-Davidson, who founded the group with two Buddhist monks, said that with plummeting popularity, mass incarceration had become the tactic for Prime Minister Hun Sen to retain power.
“It is my understanding that this [is an] utterly arbitrary verdict, and continues unlawful incarceration of the activists,” he told CamboJA via Signal messenger.
“Our fight – not just for the protection of the environment but also a more just and truly democratic nation – continues, more resilient and stronger than ever.”