Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Separate Imprisonment of Mother Nature Activists In Five Provincial Prisons Is Worrying, Families Say

A map showing the prison locations of five Mother Nature activists. (Licadho)
A map showing the prison locations of five Mother Nature activists. (Licadho)

Families’ of five environmental activists, who were sentenced to six to eight years’ imprisonment, have expressed concern for the defendants’ safety and health after they were sent to five different provincial prisons.

Phnom Penh Municipal police spokesperson Sam Vichhika confirmed that five defendants were separated to serve jail time in Kampong Speu, Kandal, Pursat, Preah Vihear, and Traping Thlong in Tboung Khmum province.

“This is a decision of the court, and our police officials are implementing the order of the court,” he said, declining to comment further.

On Tuesday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted 10 environmental activists for insulting the King and plotting to overthrow the government.

Co-founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, 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, whereas Ly Chandaravuth, Thon Ratha, Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoreaksmey, Benh Piseth, Pork Khoeuy and Ray Raksa will serve six years in prison for plotting charges.

Long Soklin, sister of convicted activist Long Kunthea, initially thought that the police would send her sister and the others to Prey Sar prison, only to learn that they were jailed separately. Kunthea was sent to the Preah Vihear prison.

The separate jail time has made her worry about their safety.

“She has been taken away like this. If she has a health problem, or officials or [other] prisoners abuse her, no one will take care of her. I’m very worried about the safety of all of them,” Soklin said. 

In addition, the distance between the provincial prison and where she and their mother lived would make it very difficult for them to travel and visit Kunthea. Soklin lived in Phnom Penh while their mother was in Kampong Cham province.

“My mother is just a farmer, so it will be very difficult to cover the travel expenses incurred when visiting my sister,” Soklin said, adding that sometimes they may not be able to visit her sister due to the cost of travel.

Chandaravuth’s mother, Ly Channavy, said it hurt her to see her son taken into custody and separated from the others, and not knowing which provincial prison he had been sent to. It was later revealed that he will serve his sentence in Kandal prison.

“It’s already sad that they were arrested. If they were placed close together, it would at least alleviate some of the pain,” she said, adding that she does not know what her son would do there. She will visit him when she receives clear information about the prison location.

Sharing his views on the separate imprisonment, NGO Partnership for Environment and Development’s head of network and advocacy San Mala said it was “more of a psychological punishment” for the activists, which includes family members’ facing difficulties visiting them in prison.

“It might be that the state authority does not want them to see who supported them or  civil society organizations to visit or advocate to demand justice,” Mala said.

“This is a bad image of the court and state authorities who have demonstrated their hatred of young activists who served the society,” he said.

Mother Nature activists talk to journalists and their supporters before the verdict by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and police arrest, July 2, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Previously, prominent Cambodian American lawyer and human rights advocate Seng Theary, who was convicted of plotting and incitement, was also transferred to a jail in Preah Vihear in 2022 from Phnom Penh prison due to “security concerns”.

Meanwhile, the conviction of the environmental activists drew attention from international communities including the European Union and United Nations which were “deeply concerned”. The EU statement, backed by six embassies in Cambodia and Thailand, called for the upholding of democratic standards and respect for human rights and right to peaceful protest.

In 2023, Right Livelihood presented an award to the activists for their fearlessness and efforts to preserve Cambodia’s natural environment. The organization “strongly condemned” the arrest and imprisonment, and called for the immediate release of the activists, who carried out peaceful protests to protect Cambodia’s environment.

Government spokesman Pen Bona told CamboJA News that their arrest was a law enforcement decision. In Cambodia, people who expressed views for the betterment of society are “not punished at all”. However, “legal action was taken only against those who break the law”.

“Please make a clear distinction between freedom of expression and social criticism with abusive actions,” Bona said, requesting that stakeholders who criticize the arrest of the Mother Nature activists should be clear so as not to cause confusion.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Y Ring and deputy chief of the General Department of Prison Nouth Savna could not be reached for comment.