Spanish Activist Accuses Cambodian Court of Breaching Law By Holding Trial in Absentia

A Spanish environmentalist who led a campaign against a controversial dam project on Tuesday accused Cambodia’s courts of violating national and international law because judicial authorities plan to hold a case against him in absentia while he is prevented by the government from re-entering the country to stand trial.

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the Khmer-speaking former director of the NGO Mother Nature Cambodia, was deported from the Southeast Asian nation in February 2015 following the government’s refusal to renew his visa.

Opposition groups and local NGOs said Gonzalez-Davidson was expelled for to prevent him from organizing further opposition to the planned Chhay Areng hydropower dam in Koh Kong province. The U.S. $400-million China-led project backed by a ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker would have forced hundreds of ethnic minority families off of their ancestral land and destroyed the habitats of endangered animals, they said.

The project was halted in 2017 by Prime Minister Hun Sen due to strong opposition to it.

Gonzalez-Davidson has been refused re-entry to Cambodia, though on May 5 he was convicted in absentia along with three other Mother Nature activists — Long Kunthea, 22, Phuon Keorasmey, 19, and Thun Ratha, 29 — and sentenced to up to 20 months in prison on incitement charges related to their activism.

In June, Gonzalez-Davidson was charged by the same court with plotting against and insulting the country’s king when authorities arrested three of his Mother Nature colleagues — Sun Ratha, Yim Leanghy, and Ly Chandaravuth — who were placed in pre-trial detention. The court has yet to set a hearing on the charge against Gonzalez-Davidson.

Deputy prosecutor Soeu Lundy of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sent Gonzalez-Davidson a summons dated July 1, ordering the 40-year-old Spanish national to appear for a July 26 hearing to face charges of “incitement to cause serious social chaos” in Cambodia between 2013 and 2020.

Gonzalez-Davidson said he wants to return to Cambodia to face off with prosecutors at the hearing on the charge for which he could face imprisonment of up to two years and a fine of up to four million riels (U.S. $969).

“I want to make the following public statement, with the intention of making it very clear to the PP [Phnom Penh] court that I regard their plans to go ahead with my trial this coming 26th of July, 2021 as a complete violation of my rights, the Cambodian constitution as well as national and international law,” he wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday.

Gonzalez-Davidson argued that a trial in absentia can only take place when the accused person is in hiding and cannot be found, which is not the case with him because he has made it clear that he is willing to attend the trial proceedings to defend himself against “non-existing crimes.”

“So, if my trial goes ahead this coming 26th of July, it will highlight one more time how the very same people who are in theory in charge of upholding the law are the ones who are violating it,” he said. “It will also make even more clear in the face of Cambodians and the international community that charges against me and the six other environmental activists in jail are a complete fabrication and are political in nature.”

Neither Y Rin, spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, nor Chin Malin, spokesman for the Justice Ministry, could be reached Tuesday for comment.

Both Cambodian and international law recognize the rights of an accused person and the court’s obligation to provide opportunities for him to defend himself in accordance with court procedures.

Article 38 of Cambodia’s constitution stipulates that every individual has the right to defense through judicial recourse. Article 14(3)(d) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Cambodia, says that all persons are equal before courts and tribunals and have the right to be tried in person, and to defend themselves in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing;

Ny Sokha, human rights monitoring director at the domestic NGO the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), said that when an accused person states his intention to attend a hearing, authorities must coordinate and facilitate for him to do so.

“Basically, the accused must be present in the court to defend his rights during the hearing,” he said. “If the accused states clearly about his intention to present himself during the hearing and to respond to any questions posed by the court, and authorities in turn do not provide proper means for him to do so, [it] is a violation of his rights to enjoy being treated equally before the court.”

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