Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Three Mother Nature activists charged with incitement

Thon Ratha waves as he arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on September 6. Panha Chhorpoan

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged three environmental activists with incitement to disturb social security on September 6, a move civil society groups have said is meant as a threat to others who dare to criticize the government.

The three activists from the NGO Mother Nature, Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoreaksmey, and Thon Ratha, were arrested on September 3 over posts they made on social media saying they planned to march to the prime minister’s house to raise awareness on environmental issues caused by the filling in of Boeng Tamok lake.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Kuch Kimlong said on September 6 that three activists were charged under articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code, and that the judge had decided to place them in pre-trial detention.

“After questioning the three people according to procedure, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge decided to place them in pre-trial detention,” Kimlong said.

According to Article 495 of the Criminal Code, direct incitement to commit a felony or to disturb social security would be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and two years.

The post made on the Mother Nature Faceook page discussed the group’s plan to protest the filling in of Boeng Tamok lake in northwestern Phnom Penh. 

“Ms. Long Kunthea will walk from Wat Phnom on Thursday, September 3 at 11am to Samdech Hun Sen’s house near the independence monument dressed in white clothes in order to request to meet Samdech in person to show concern around the filling in of Tamok lake, including flooding in Phnom Penh during rainy season, the environmental impact, the loss of bird habitat and the biodiversity of the lake,” the post reads.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Sar Thet had said September 4 that police believed the three had committed an activity amounting to incitement to disturb social security.

“It is an offense of the incitement [their messages] because in Article 494 it clearly states that the existence of incitement must be proven by speech, writing, or picture of any kind, either displayed or distributed to the public,” Thet said. 

“They are now writing and displaying to the public so there is an element that meets the prerequisites for those articles [494 and 495],” he said, adding that Ratha has installed the studio by disseminating information without permission in which issued from relevant institutions.”

However, Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, the outspoken director of Mother Nature said September 4 that from a legal point of view, the detention of the three activists is completely arbitrary and unlawful.

He said that although Mother Nature has not been registered as an NGO since they were struck from the Interior Ministry’s list in 2017, they are still active.

“[W]e are still very much so legitimate, as Cambodian people have the right and obligation to get involved in the protection of the nations’ under attack natural resources,” he said in a message. 

Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn said September 4 that the ministry is still investigating the studio found in Ratha’s house to confirm whether he was disseminating information without permission. 

“Right now their cases are proceeding with police officials and the Information Ministry will continue to monitor the case,” he said.

When asked if writing posts on Facebook can constitute an offense, he said: “As I have mentioned, the case is under questioning by police, so the ministry does not have any comment.”

Soeng Senkaruna, senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, called on the government and the court to drop the charges against the activists, who are merely working to protect natural resources.

 “For me, I think that it is an injustice for them because we do not see any intention of incitement,” he said.

Senkaruna said that the incitement offense should only be used if someone has legitimately disturbed social order or infringed on the rights of other people.

“What they have posted, it was just an act for the common interest of society and the protection of the environment and natural resources, so it has no element of incitement,” Senkaruna said.

“The activists have exercised their rights by starting a campaign through social media to raise awareness among the public and address challenging issues in society related to floods, which should be upheld in a democratic country,” he added.

“We are very worried that after peacefully exercising their opinion, they were arrested,” he said.

Mother Nature is no stranger to controversy, with dozens of its members arrested over the years and several charged and imprisoned. 

Two members of the group, Hun Vannak and Dem Kundy were found guilty in 2018 of incitement to commit a felony and making unauthorized recordings and sentenced to one year in jail by the Koh Kong Provincial Court.

Three more Mother Nature activists, San Mala, Try Sovikea and Sim Somnang, were charged over a criminal complaint filed by a sand dredging company in Koh Kong over protests they engaged in against the company’s actions in 2015. They served one year in jail awaiting trial before being released on a suspended sentence when their charges were handed down in 2016. 

It’s founder, Gonzalez-Davidson, was charged over the same protests with “threatening to cause destruction, defacement or damage” and incitement, but he was acquitted last year. He was deported months before the protests took place and has been denied re-entry to the country ever since.