Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Mother Nature Activists Produce Live Podcast Before Hearing, Urge Court to Summon Founder to Trial

Five environmental activists produce a live podcast outside the barricade set up by the authorities to block supporters from entering the Phnom Penh Municipal Court before their hearing on June 11, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Five environmental activists produce a live podcast outside the barricade set up by the authorities to block supporters from entering the Phnom Penh Municipal Court before their hearing on June 11, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Five environmental activists, charged with insulting the King and plotting against the government, produced a 30-minute podcast live on Facebook just before their third hearing to prove their innocence.

They also demanded that Spanish national Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of Mother Nature, attend the trial, saying that the basis of their charge was taken from his commentary with a foreign radio and an overseas speech where he allegedly attacked the government.

The defendants boycotted the second hearing last week after the authorities barred a few reporters and supporters from entering Phnom Penh Municipal Court compound.

“We decided to attend the trial this week because if we refuse to enter [the courtroom] they will accuse us of giving up our right,” Long Kunthea told reporters. “We attended the trial to defend our innocence, and we’re not betrayers as they accuse us of,” she said.

The defendants said the podcast was aimed at letting people decide whether they were traitors because many people did not know what was said in the hearing. Eight hours after the live podcast, some 43,400 views were garnered.

During the live podcast, Thon Rotha said if Mother Nature gave him $100,000 to do illegal things or overthrow the government, he would not work for the movement. His work with the organization was related to environmental issues in the country. As his activities were not illegal, he was not worried.

“[Our work] is not illegal, there is nothing to worry about. We are happy to do this and there is a lot of support from the people,” he said.

“We are accused of treason, but our actions were never hidden. We published them publicly on Facebook,” said Mother Nature activist Long Kunthea, a fellow defendant, in the podcast. “When we do something related to natural resources, we always do it in public. We never do it quietly in a room like how the court is quietly questioning us.”

Another defendant, Yim Leanghy said, when Mother Nature found a solution, the government was the one which benefited, but the government “never considered them a good movement”.

“Mother Nature movement is a good partner but the government often distorts [the work] and looks at it in a bad way,” he said, adding that the organization was raising issues so that the government could solve it, in turn making the government look good.

Leanghy urged the government to consider dropping the accusation “because natural work is done for the government and the people.”

Dressed in white, defendant Phoung Keoreaksmey, denied the charges and urged the court to summon Gonzalez-Davidson, or known to them as Alex, because their charges were based on his comments. 

“I don’t have time to listen to what Alex was said. The accusation was based on Alex’ commentary [with the media]. I wasn’t involved,” Keoreaksmey.

She told the court that she has been held in detention for 14 months on incitement charges while Gonzelez-Davison comment was made in 2021. 

Presiding judge Oukreth Kunthea replied to Keoreaksmey that the court had issued an arrest warrant on him. “[If] he comes, they will arrest [him] to deliver justice,”  she said.

Gonzalez-Davidson was deported in 2015 and barred from entering Cambodia for his activism. He was found guilty along with four activists who were sentenced to up to 20 months in prison after being found guilty for incitement in 2021.

On Tuesday, Gonzelez-Davidson told CamboJA News via Signal that the government has denied his visa application to Cambodia, adding that he was “blacklisted”.

“Therefore, I am unable to enter Cambodia, let alone attend this trial circus, where there is no crime, no witnesses, no evidence and victims other than young activists who’ve already spent considerable time in jail and are risking their freedom once more in order to improve society,” he said.

“The problem is that the court is performing a pathetic dance to the tune of the politicians who control it, so we cannot expect them to provide justice in any way,” Gonzalez-Davidson mentioned.

Deputy prosecutor Seng Heang interrogated defendants regarding the receipt of foreign funding, organization structure, the content of a Zoom meeting, and plans to produce video regarding environmental issues.

“The Mother Nature movement does not have a leadership structure,” defendant Ly Chandarvuth said. “The money comes from Khmer citizens living inside and outside the country.”

Chandaravuth told the court that he joined the organization to protect natural resources such as lakes, rivers and islands to “uncover corruption” committed by some officials and tycoons.

NGO rights group Adhoc senior investigator Yi Soksan said environmental activists should be motivated instead of charging them because their activities served social interest.

“We have seen that the charges are so big that it will affect the court’s independence because they are just youths out to disseminate information about the environment, but they have been charged as betraying the nation,” he said.

“We should reform the justice system to gain the public’s trust and stop arbitrary charges,” Soksan said.

On June 17, the next hearing date, the court is expected to show a six-hour video clip as evidence against the defendants who committed the alleged offense from 2012 to 2021.

(Additional reporting by Ly Rosslan)