Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Phnom Penh Court Hears Mother Nature Activists’ Case on Plotting, Insulting the King

Mother Nature activists and other environmental activists arrive at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for their hearing after being charged for plotting against the government and insulting the King, May 29, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Mother Nature activists and other environmental activists arrive at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for their hearing after being charged for plotting against the government and insulting the King, May 29, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Phnom Penh Municipal Court heard the case involving 10 environmental activists, including co-founder of Mother Nature Spanish national Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who were charged for plotting to overthrow the government and insulting the King.

The charge stems from a Zoom meeting in May 2021, where a video clip was posted on a Facebook account called “Kamchatchunkbot” , meaning “defeat the traitor” in Khmer, which served as evidence of the activists’ alleged plot to topple the government.

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

Gonzalez-Davidson and defendants Yim Leanghy and Sun Ratha were charged for insulting the King and plotting against the government.

Ly Chandaravuth, Thon Ratha, Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoreaksmey, Penh Piseth, Vei Reaksa and Pork Khoeuy were charged for plotting against the government.

During Wednesday’s trial, only five defendants – Leanghy, Chandaravuth, Ratha, Kunthea, and Keoreaksmey appeared in court. They were dressed in white outfits, to show that they were in “mourning over the loss of justice”.

The Cambodian defendants were released on bail while Spanish national Gonzalez-Davidson was deported and barred from entering Cambodia.

During the two and a half hour trial, Leanghy denied insulting the King when deputy prosecutor Seng Heang questioned him on the use of disrespectful language during the Zoom meeting.

He also urged the court not to use him to blame another, which was in reference to Gonzalez-Davidson.

He also did not respond to questions on the movement’s activities and its source of funding.

“What was the word I used to insult the king? I respect the king,” Leanghy told the court, adding that “I have never incited” people to hate the government.

The deputy prosecutor then read out Leanghy’s previous testimony in front of the investigating judge where he alleged that Gonzalez-Davidson had “used disrespectful words against the King”.

According to the deputy prosecutor, Leanghy had allegedly said, “I didn’t support [the disrespectful words] as the King was the victim. Please don’t get him [King] involved.”

Leanghy further said, “Just saying the King was the victim, is it an insult? I do not want to answer this accusation.” 

“I worked with Mother Nature as a volunteer, receiving $500 as a stipend,” he said.

He also told the court that he joined Mother Nature about two months before his arrest to address environmental issues in accordance with Article 35 of the Cambodian constitution which stipulated that Khmer citizens have the right to participate actively in political, economic, social and cultural life of the nation.

Mother Nature activists leave the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after their first day of trial, May 29, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

About 20 supporters gathered outside the Phnom Penh Municipal to support the environmental activists, holding up banners which read, “the work of environmental protection is not illegal” and “we support Mother Nature’s activists”.

Soeun Sreymai, a philosophy student at a university in Phnom Penh, who was in court, said she came to show her support for the activists who work hard to protect the environment.

“By protecting the environment, they have sacrificed a lot, no matter how hard their life is. There are many challenges from the authorities threatening to ban them from traveling to affected areas,” she mentioned.

She added that environmental protection efforts should be encouraged and collaborated with the authorities.

Sreymai hoped that the court would drop the charges against the Mother Nature activists by taking into consideration their past efforts. “The work we do to protect the environment is not something that is illegal, but it is helping the society to prosper,” she said.

NGO Partnership for Environment and Development head of network and advocacy San Mala, who monitored the hearing, called on the court to drop all charges against the activists who have sacrificed their energy to protect the environment and public interest. 

“We see that the courts always prosecute and arrest environmental activists and put them in jail,” he said.

Since 2015, 11 environmental activists from the Mother Nature movement have been imprisoned.

“Our state should encourage those who have sacrificed their time and energy to protect the environment. They should create favorable conditions, and not look at environmentalists as enemies or opponents of development,” Mala said.

NGO rights group Licadho operation director Am Sam Ath said youths who have participated to protect natural resources such as forestry, environmental issues should be encouraged rather than arrested. 

“We have seen a lot of criticism for their detention and charges in the past. It [sends] a message to other youths who will hesitate to participate in the protection of the environment if those youths [accused person] were convicted or detained,” he said.

In May 2021, Gonzalez-Davidson and four 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.

The Mother Nature movement was founded in 2013 and has consistently battled officials and well-connected businessmen allegedly linked to environmental crimes and mismanagement. This includes the exposure of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of sand stolen from Cambodian waterways and sold in Singapore.

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

The trial continues on June 5.

A group of supporters gather in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court during the trial of Mother Nature activists on May 29, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)