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Three convicted Mother Nature activists handed an additional plotting charge

Mother Nature activists arrive at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for a hearing earlier this year, Picture taken on March 31, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Mother Nature activists arrive at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for a hearing earlier this year, Picture taken on March 31, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Three environmental activists convicted earlier this year on incitement charges related to a planned protest have been handed a new charge of ‘plotting’ by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in connection with an ongoing case against four other activists.

The trio, members of the environmental group Mother Nature, have been in prison since September 2020, when they were arrested for planning a one-woman march to raise awareness of the impact of filling in lakes for development in the capital. In May, they were sentenced to 18 to 20 months. 

Rights group Licadho said Thon Ratha, Long Kunthea, and Phuon Keoreaksmey were handed an additional charge of plotting and questioned by the Municipal Court this week. If found guilty, they could face up to 10 years in prison. Licadho said their lawyers were not informed ahead of time and so the activists appeared at court without representation.

Sam Chamroeun, who represented the three in their last case, said Ratha was questioned on Monday, Kunthea was questioned on Tuesday and Ms Keoreaksmey was questioned on Wednesday, but said they refused to talk without their lawyers present.

“I just knew that they were summoned to be questioned but they did not answer yet because they are waiting for their lawyer [to defend them],” Chamroeun.

Attorney Sam Sokong said that all three activists were summoned for questioning over the new charges, which are connected with a second case involving activists who were arrested in June and charged with plotting and insulting the king, after reportedly taking photos of sewage being released into the Tonle Sap River near the Royal Palace.

Environmental activists Sun Ratha and Yim Leanghy were arrested on June 16 and later charged with both plotting and insulting the king. Another activist, Ly Chandaravuth, was charged only with plotting. All three youths are now in pretrial detention at Prey Sar prison’s CC1 and CC2. Mother Nature co-founder and Spanish national Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who remains abroad, was also charged with plotting and insulting the King. The case has been widely condemned as politically motivated, and represents just the latest in a series of cases against Mother Nature — which has long drawn the government’s ire.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigating judge Im Vannak, declined to comment, referring questions to the court spokesman, who could not be reached.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of Licadho, said the charges were clearly aimed at silencing criticism among others.

“That additional charge for them is a threat and [aimed to] pressure environmental activists and other youths who want to join to protect the environment,” he said, adding that the government should support those trying to better Cambodia.

“We saw that the US and the US ambassador in Cambodia also requested the government to release them because they understand that it is not a crime and it is freedom of expression and activity to join the [fight to protect the] environment,” said Sam Ath.

Chak Sopheap, executive directive of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said they strongly condemn the arrests and charges.

“The charges of plotting and lèse-majesté are a blatant illustration of the dangerous and restrictive environment in which activists in Cambodia operate and of the RGC’s [Royal Government of Cambodia] relentless efforts to stifle critical voices in the country,” she wrote in a message.

“CCHR deplores that imprisonment is an increasingly common price to pay for speaking out for human rights in Cambodia. We, therefore, urge the RGC to immediately release all the activists jailed for conducting their legitimate work, including members of the Mother Nature environmental group, and to unconditionally drop all the charges against them.”

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