Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Trial of Mother Nature Activists Concludes at Phnom Penh Court, Verdict on July 2

Five environmental activists speak to journalists before their hearing at the entrance of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on June 24, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Five environmental activists speak to journalists before their hearing at the entrance of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on June 24, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

The trial against 10 environmental activists, including Spanish national Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of Mother Nature, who were charged with insulting the King and plotting to overthrow the government, at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has ended after the fifth session on Monday.

The verdict will be delivered on July 2.

The defendants denied the charges while their lawyers argued that there was no evidence proving their guilt. Meanwhile, deputy prosecutor Seng Heang maintained that the activists plotted to topple the government under the pretext of “protecting environmental and human rights”.

In his closing statement, Heang said the defendants acted “to jeopardize national security” and with “ill intention to secretly transfer money” between 2012 and 2021. Mother Nature was deregistered in 2017 by the Ministry of Interior.

Reading out Gonzalez-Davidson’s comment “advocacy against Hun Sen’s regime” made during a Zoom meeting, Heang said the activist had attempted to overthrow the government through a so-called “color revolution”, under the pretext of environmental and human rights in Cambodia.

Gonzalez-Davidson and two other defendants, Yim Leanghy and Sun Ratha, also allegedly used inappropriate words to insult the King in the Zoom meeting.

“The prosecution maintains the charge of plotting and insulting the King which affected national security. Judges, please consider penalizing [them] according to the law,” Heang said. 

Five defendants stood up before three judges to deny the charges, saying that their work was to “protect the environment” and asked the panel to acquit them.

“I devoted my life to protecting the environment, even though I left my job with [a monthly salary of] $1,000 to ensure accountability and transparency in environmental [protection],” Leanghy said. “I ask the judges to drop all charges.”

Another defendant, Ly Chandaravuth, echoed Leanghy, saying that they work on environmental issues. His activity was to expose “rich people and powerful officials” who were benefiting from filling up lakes and destroying the environment.

“There were no elements [supporting] the plotting charge, the use of violence or impact on sovereignty,” he said, citing Article 451, which stipulates what an attack is. “It consists of the commission of one or more acts of violence liable to endanger the institutions of Cambodia or violate the integrity of the national territory.”

Defense lawyer Sam Sokhunthea stressed that there was inadequate evidence implicating her clients and that Gonzalez-Davidson’s comment does not reflect her clients’ opinions.

“Which video clip shows my clients organizing a plot to attack government institutions?” she asked. 

“There’s no plotting [activity] with a foreigner. All the activities were related to the rights of freedom of expression,” Sokhunthea said. International conventions, as well as the Cambodian constitution, states that citizens have a right to participate in social activities, she added. “Judges, please drop all charges against my clients,” she urged.

Another defense lawyer Sam Chamroeun questioned the legitimacy of the collection of evidence in the Zoom meeting, stating that “it was a private meeting”.

“A stolen record meeting of an individual is not legitimate, so it is not legal to be tendered as evidence,” he said.

In the morning session, court officials played a video as evidence against the Mother Nature activists but refused to play the part where the activists believed it would help their case, despite insistence by the defendants and their lawyers.

The court continued screening two more videos incriminating the activists, revealing conversations among them, including Gonzalez-Davidson.

The first video showed the activists discussing requests to use drones in Cambodia, while the second video discussed Hun Sen’s power, which was taken as evidence to “insult the King”.

In the video, Gonzalez-Davidson said, “He [Hun Sen] asks whether to vote for the amendment of the Constitution so that Hun Sen will become the King of Cambodia.”

Former Mother Nature activist Yim Leanghy replied to Alejandro in the video to not involve the King. “If you vote to amend the constitution, [it is] for his son [Hun Sen’s son] to be the prime minister or for him [Hun Sen] to be prime minister for life,” he added.

Leanghy further mentioned in the video that they should only discuss the government or ruling party because “he [King] is the victim”. In court today, he told the judges that his actions and words were not intended to insult the King because he respected the monarch and tried to prevent the King’s name from being discussed.

In the meantime, Chandaravuth asked the court to play more videos, especially the one where he was training with foreigners, as the prosecution had used as evidence of conspiracy against him.

“Prosecutors always ask about the training with foreigners,” he said. “[I am] requesting [the court] to play that video to show everyone whether the training was illegal or not?”

However, presiding judge Ouk Reth Kunthea rejected Chandaravuth’s request as showing that video was a “waste of time” because the videos that the court received at the trial judge stage was already shown and not presented as evidence in the hearing.

“I decided not to play more videos beside the evidence that exists in the case file. If you think there isn’t enough evidence, it [works in] your favor when your lawyer concludes,” she said.

NGO rights group Licadho operations director Am Sam Ath, who attended the trial, said the defendants and their lawyers were not satisfied with the videos presented as evidence. Most of the videos that were played were to prove their guilt. The court did not play the other videos on the list, which were sent to court by the authorities, and those which the activists believe would help clear their name.

“The trial chamber said all the evidence [videos that the defendants requested to play] were not found in the case file, where we see the authorities have built a case and sent it as evidence.”

“But the burden of proof and evidence that may acquit the defendants [were not seen] which is suspicious,” Sam Ath said, adding that the requirement to present all the evidence of the accused and their lawyer was justified. This could clarify the facts and seek full justice for the accused.