Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Mother Nature Environmentalists Found Guilty, To Serve A Max of Eight Years

Authorities arrest Thon Ratha, who was forced into a vehicle shortly after Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced him to six years’ imprisonment on July 2, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Authorities arrest Thon Ratha, who was forced into a vehicle shortly after Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced him to six years’ imprisonment on July 2, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Ten environmental activists have been sentenced to six and eight years’ imprisonment by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for insulting the King and plotting to overthrow the government.

Human rights groups Licadho and Amnesty International decried the decision, calling it “another crushing blow” to Cambodia’s civil society.

Amnesty said Mother Nature was a renowned activist group that has brought attention to environmental degradation, fuelled by “long-standing corruption in the country”.

Its co-founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, as well as Sun Ratha and Yim Leanghy were convicted to eight years in prison and fined 10 million riel or $2,500 each for insulting the King and plotting, said president judge Ouk Reth Kunthea, who read out the verdict on Tuesday.

Seven other defendants – Ly Chandaravuth, Thon Ratha, Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoreaksmey, Benh Piseth, Pork Khoeuy and Ray Raksa will serve six years in prison for plotting charges. No fine was imposed.

Judge Reth Kunthea issued an additional sentence against Spanish national Gonzalez-Davidson, which barred him from entering or staying in Cambodia. All the defendants were also ordered to be arrested.

Following the verdict, Chandaravuth, Ratha, Kunthea and Keoreaksmey, were caught outside the court, while Yim Leanghy was nabbed from another place in the capital after he fled.

“We have arrested five people after [the issuance] of arrest warrants,” Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Sam Vichhika said, adding that they have been sent to Prey Sar prison.

Before the arrest, the defendants and about 50 supporters marched to court in white outfits and headbands, and carried placards bearing the words “justice is dead”. The march was organized to look like a traditional Khmer funeral ceremony.

Mother Nature activists and supporters march to Phnom Penh Municipal Court before their verdict on July 2, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Chandaravuth, who was walking back to court at the time of his arrest, said they were ready for the verdict and would accept it without fear, no matter the outcome.

“Even if we go to prison, our hearts will remain with the Cambodian people. We’ll keep their interest in mind and continue to actively monitor the situation in Cambodia from the prison,” he said. “If we are inactive and do not care about social issues, our future will be miserable.”

Chandaravuth said it was not too late for everyone to start thinking about social issues, so as not to repeat history where people always depended on politicians, who “ultimately deceived them and made them suffer”.

The activists’ conviction stemmed from a Zoom meeting in May 2021, where a video clip posted on a Facebook account called “Kamchatchunkbot”, meaning “defeat the traitor” in Khmer, served as “corroborating evidence” in the plot to topple the government.

The clip from the Zoom meeting showed the defendants allegedly using “disrespectful language” against former Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni.

“It [the verdict] is not only a total travesty of justice, but also a grave strategic mistake by [Cambodia],” Gonzalez-Davidson said via Signal. 

“Imprisoning the young activists in such a way, in front of the whole country and the world, is going to make them look a little less than rogue thugs,” he added.

Gonzalez-Davidson was expelled from Cambodia in 2015 over his activism, with his organization being deregistered in 2017.

Licadho operations director Am Sam Ath found the verdict and the court ruling that the youth activists (who fight to protect the environment and democratic principles) were acting against the state, was “very disappointing”.

“This verdict can be deflating, but I think it should spur other human rights defenders to join the front lines and continue to push for a more democratic Cambodia,” he said.

It was “astounding” that the authorities are convicting youth activists, who advocate for clean water in Phnom Penh, protect mangrove forests in Koh Kong and warn against the privatisation of land in protected areas, and presenting it as “an attack against the state”, he added.

However, despite the legal challenges they faced, it was “heartening” to see the Mother Nature activists continue their activism steadfastly, as evidenced by the march they conducted hours prior to the verdict, Sam Ath said.

NGO rights group Adhoc senior investigator Yi Soksan said the arrest of the activists was “unjust” and a “threat” to future environmentalists.

The court’s decision to jail the youths, who protect the environment, for six and eight years was very unfair in Cambodia. “We should not be punished so badly,” he said.

“The arrest is a threat to activists. The next [generation of] environmentalists would no longer dare to defend. Even if they see natural resources being destroyed, they won’t dare to defend,” Soksan added.

The activists’ lawyers, Sam Chamroeun and Ly Sochetra, could not be reached for comment.