Civil society groups have expressed concern over the fairness of the upcoming trial against environmental group Mother Nature founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson on incitement charges, who remains banned from entering the country despite being named in a court summons.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued a summons for Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson to attend an upcoming trial on July 26 on charges of incitement to disturb social security between 2013 to 2020. The retrial follows the defendant’s appeal against his previous sentence in May, where Gonzalez-Davidson was convicted in absentia.
Gonzalez-Davidson was deported from Cambodia in 2015 for his environmental activism and has been denied re-entry to the country ever since. The Mother Nature founder was previously charged with “threatening to cause destruction, defacement or damage” and incitement in connection with protests against a sand-dredging company in Koh Kong province that occurred months after his deportation, but was acquitted last year. Mother Nature Cambodia was deregistered by the Ministry of Interior in 2017, but has remained active within Cambodia.
In May, the court sentenced five environmental activists, including Gonzalez-Davidson, to up to 20 months in prison on incitement charges over plans for a one-woman march to raise awareness of the impact of filling in lakes for development in the capital. The Mother Nature co-founder as well as activist Thon Ratha were sentenced to 20 months for their roles in the campaign, while the rest received 18 months in prison.
In a post on his Facebook account on Tuesday, Gonzalez-Davidson said that he is willing to attend the upcoming trial to defend himself against the incitement charges, noting that a trial in absentia can only take place when the accused person is in hiding and cannot be found.
“This is most clearly not the case with me as I have made clear in many occasions (via my lawyer, via my embassy, in public statements like this, etc.) that I am more than willing to attend the trial proceedings against me and defend myself against these non-existing crimes,” he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that the government as the holder of executive power had expelled Gonzalez-Davidson over his activism. Despite this, he urged the Spanish national to try to enter the country.
“Please come, you are welcome, because Alex has many cases, although prison is now crowded but it’s possible for Alex,” he said. “There is a ban on entering and if he still comes, it will violate a ban and he will be seriously punished, including the court’s case.”
However, Gonzalez-Davidson told CamboJA via social media that more than a dozen of his requests for a visa to Cambodia over the past couple of years had been met with silence or immediate rejection.
“The only way for me to enter the country — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — is for the Ministry of Interior to issue me a visa beforehand,” he said.
The Mother Nature founder, who is currently living in Barcelona, said that he is still awaiting a reply for his last visa request, which he made several months ago.
“It will also make even more clear in the face of Cambodians and the international community that charges against me and the six other environmental activists in jail are a complete fabrication and are political in nature,” he added.
Sam Chamroeun, a defense lawyer for the environmental activist, confirmed that he had received the summons and was preparing documents and evidence to present at the trial.
“I can’t say whether he will attend the trial because it is a complicated question,” he said. “However, I will thoroughly prepare to defend in that case,”
Last month, four Mother Nature environmental activists were arrested and accused of plotting, or conspiracy, to commit crimes. Ly Chandravuth, Sun Ratha and Sith Chhivlimeng were arrested in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district, while an environmental activist Yim Leanghy was arrested in Kandal province’s Koh Thom district the same day.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, said that the defendant has the right to seek justice and equality before the law, noting that defendants should be present in court.
“First, to give him a chance to debate, to make excuses in confrontation, and to present some evidence for the court to consider,” he said. “If the accused does not return and rely on a lawyer to defend his rights, it is incomplete, unequal before the law, as well as not full justice.”
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan referred questions to the court. Court spokesperson Y Rin could not be reached for comment.
Cambodian Centre for Human Rights executive director Chak Sopheap said that Gonzalez-Davidson’s trial should not even be taking place in the first place, as environmental activism is not a crime, noting that has repeatedly expressed his desire and willingness to be present at his trial for fair trial rights. She said that the government’s decision to expel the activist from Cambodia – and to subsequently charge him – and to judicially harass his Khmer colleagues are examples of the government’s inability to handle criticism, and of its tendency to abuse its powers to silence dissent.
“We urge the government to unconditionally drop all charges against Mother Nature activists and to immediately release those of them who are imprisoned,” she said.