A court in Cambodia’s capital sentenced five members of an environmental watchdog to between 18 and 20 months in prison Wednesday for “incitement,” prompting condemnation from family members and rights groups who said the convictions were unjust and had dealt a blow to freedom of expression.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court handed Mother Nature activists Long Kunthea, Phuong Keo Raksmey and Chea Kunthin 18 months in jail, and Thon Ratha 20 months, for “inciting serious social unrest,” while group founder and Spanish national Alejandro Gonzales-Davidson was given 20 months in prison on the more serious charge of “conspiracy to incitement.” Additionally, all five were fined around U.S. $1,000 each.
Both Gonzales-Davidson and Chea Kunthin were sentenced in absentia and warrants were served for their arrest. Thon Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phuong Keo Raksmey had been in pre-trial detention for more than nine months, which will count as time served towards their sentences.
Thon Ratha’s wife, Batt Raksmey, expressed disappointment that the court did not provide her husband with justice and instead chose to punish him for his work protecting the country’s natural resources.
“I no longer believe in the court, I no longer believe in the law—I only believe in law of Karma,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“I believe that one day those who cut down the forests will perish, and those who protect the destroyers will reap what they sow.”
Batt Raksmey called for local and international nongovernmental organizations to intervene in her husband’s case.
Long Kunthea’s sister, Long Sok Srey Lin, told RFA that the court had accused her of something she hadn’t done, and suggested that the verdict was a threat aimed at preventing people from taking part in environmental activism.
“She didn’t do anything illegal; she is simply a youth who loves the environment and had warned the government that dredging lakes will impact society, which is her own opinion,” she said.
“Nonetheless, her suggestion was turned into some kind of offense for ‘inciting riots’ that was punished with 18 months in jail, which I think is very unjust.”
Calling into an RFA live show on Wednesday, Gonzales-Davidson called the conviction against him and his fellow Mother Nature members “ridiculous.”
“I am willing to return to Cambodia to face the sentence if [Prime Minister] Hun Sen will give me an entry visa,” said the activist, who was expelled from the country in February 2015 and placed on a blacklist that prevents his return to the country.
“I don’t think this ridiculous sentence will scare people from working to protect natural resources in Cambodia. Instead, this puppet court sentence will encourage more and more youths to join hands and commit to protecting the country’s environment.
The activists’ lawyer, Sam Chamroeun, told RFA that the court’s verdict is “unacceptable” because the prosecution did not provide any evidence to prove his clients guilty. He said that he plans to discuss an appeal of the ruling with his clients.
“We cannot accept the court’s verdict and we will discuss with our clients what to do next, because we have one month to appeal,” he said.
Condemnation from observers
Wednesday’s sentence drew “deep concern” from the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, which expressed its support for the activists.
“Speaking up to protect #Cambodia‘s environment, threatened by illegal logging and exploitation, is admirable. We urge their release so all can hear their message on protecting natural resources,” the embassy said in a message on Twitter.
Local and international human rights organizations took a harder line against the ruling and called on Cambodia’s High Court to reverse it.
Ny Sokha, the head of the human rights unit of Cambodian rights group Adhoc, said the environmental activists had committed no wrongdoing in protecting the country’s natural resources and expressed regret over the verdict.
“They simply made requests and showed their concern [about the destruction of natural resources],” he said.
“Why accuse them of inciting social unrest and opposing the government? This ruling reflects a failure to implement democracy and is inconsistent with the principles of our constitution.”
‘Bogus criminal charges’
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), applauded the activists for their bravery in “shining a light on corruption and rights abuses connected to crony business projects that threaten Cambodia’s natural resources and biodiversity.”
Robertson called the convictions “part of the Cambodian government’s continued vendetta against Mother Nature” that officials hope to “destroy through bogus criminal charges.”
“Cambodia obviously thinks this outrageous and unacceptable persecution of these activists for exercising their rights and standing up for the environment will not be noticed by the international community because they are distracted by the [coronavirus] pandemic,” he said in a statement from Bangkok.
“Foreign governments, U.N. agencies and donors should demand this wrongful conviction be reversed, and these three currently detained activists be immediately and unconditionally released.”
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