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Mother Nature Cambodia activists sentenced to prison — again

  • In a ruling condemned by rights activists and deemed “concerning” and “deeply worrying” by foreign diplomats, 10 members of environmental activist group Mother Nature Cambodia were sentenced to prison July 2.
  • The activists, who were convicted of plotting against the government and insulting the king, received sentences ranging from six to eight years in prison.
  • Four of the activists were arrested after the verdict was issued, and one from his home prior to the sentencing. The other five were sentenced in absentia.
  • The activists used the last moments ahead of the sentencing to express their ongoing commitment to fighting to protect Cambodia’s environment.

PHNOM PENH — Ten members of the environmental activist group Mother Nature Cambodia have been sentenced to between six and eight years in prison after being convicted on charges of plotting against the government and insulting the king.

The ruling came July 2, following a trial that began May 29, although the five hearings lasted scarcely longer than 22 hours total, and only five of the 10 defendants attended the hearings.

Ly Chandaravuth (24), Phuon Keorasmey (23), Long Kunthea (26) and Thun Ratha (32) were all handed six-year sentences after being convicted of plotting against the government. The four were the only defendants who attended the sentencing July 2, and all four have been previously imprisoned for their activism.

Ly Chandaravuth, 24, addresses Mother Nature supporters before the court issued a verdict sentencing him and nine others to prison on July 2, 2024. Image courtesy of Licadho.

Yim Leanghy (35), who had also attended the hearings prior to the sentencing, was absent. Human rights monitors confirmed that he was arrested outside his home, just hours before presiding judge Ouk Reth Kunthea sentenced Leanghy to eight years in prison and ordered the environmentalist to pay 10 million riel (roughly $2,500) for plotting against the government and insulting the king.

Spanish national Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, Mother Nature Cambodia’s founder who was deported in 2015, was also sentenced in absentia to eight years and ordered to pay $2,500, as was another activist from the group, Sun Ratha.

Neither was present for the trial or the verdict, and Judge Kunthea also confirmed that Gonzalez-Davidson is permanently banned from reentering Cambodia.

Three other Mother Nature Cambodia activists were also sentenced in absentia; Minh Piseth, Pok Khoeuy and Rai Raksa all received six-year prison sentences for plotting against the government.

Following the court’s verdict, the arrests of Chandaravuth, Keorasmey, Kunthea and Ratha were ordered, and the four were swarmed by police officers outside the Phnom Penh Court of First Instance, where the activists had gathered along with a group of supporters.

Police wait for the order to arrest Mother Nature Cambodia activists on July 2, 2024. Human rights observers have said the arrests were needlessly aggressive. Image courtesy of Licadho.

The arrests, human rights observers present said, were needlessly aggressive — videos emerging on social media show a mix of around 50 uniformed police and plainclothes security personnel charging at the four activists who were seated cross-legged on the pavement outside the court. Security personnel can be seen shoving supporters and yelling at reporters covering the verdict. At least one supporter of the environmental activism group was also arrested when police descended on the activists.

Nouth Savna, spokesperson for the General Department of Prisons, confirmed that the five activists have been sent to five separate prisons; Kandal, Kampong Speu, Preah Vihear and Pursat provincial prisons, as well as Correctional Center 3 in Thbong Khmum province. Savna did not answer questions on which activist was sent to which prison,  although Cambodia’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded with some housing as many as five times the number of inmates they’re built to hold.

Prior to the verdict, Chandaravuth told his supporters not to let his arrest discourage them from speaking out in defense of Cambodia’s natural resources.

“We don’t have any other options; we are here,” the 24-year-old told the crowd, contrasting his situation with that of the Cambodian elite. “When they destroy our country, they have taken on new nationalities; they have millions of dollars — they can run to live in other countries when our country is destroyed, leaving only us who live in this country. If we don’t protect our country, we will be victims in the future. If we are afraid today, we will be suffering tomorrow.”

The microphone was passed between the four activists, with 23-year-old Keorasmey using her time before the verdict to tell the crowd that Mother Nature Cambodia would not stop until the country’s elite cease grabbing land, logging forests and imprisoning critics.

Phuon Keorasmey, 23, a prominent figure in Mother Nature Cambodia, is arrested on July 2, 2024. Image courtesy of Licadho.


“My mother is watching me today to see the injustice of the court; the court should provide justice,” she said. “My parents want to see me happy like the children of [the powerful]. It’s not just the children of [the powerful], nor only the children of the prime minister or ministers who can have happiness, development and freedom, even though I am a child of the poor, I am a citizen and I must have rights — those rights should be protected by the government, not oppressed like today.”

Several of the environmentalists quoted Kem Ley, a celebrated activist who was gunned down in 2016 in what was widely regarded as a political assassination.

“Wipe away your tears and continue your journey forward,” said Thun Ratha, 32, quoting Ley. “If you do not do anything, you will be victimized, too, yet it is not your turn.”

Long Kunthea, 26, used her time to thank Mother Nature Cambodia’s supporters, assuring them that jail, even for a second time, would not the be the end of their activism.

“You are our hope if the court decides to jail us,” she told supporters. “May you all not be hopeless but continue your work in protecting the environment, your rights, your land. Although we are in jail, we will be strong. They can only arrest our bodies, but they cannot arrest our will and conscience. We raise our two fingers in a show of support for peace; it is not just a word, we support a peace with justice.”

“Justice is dead,” reads a sign carried by Mother Nature Cambodia activists en route to court on July 2, 2024. Image courtesy of Licadho.

A swift trial and international outcry

The initial hearing on May 29 lasted roughly 2.5 hours, but the volume of supporters that gathered outside the court on that first day of the trial prompted police to close off the road to the court on June 5, the day of the second hearing. In response to their supporters and some journalists being barred from accessing the public hearing, Chandaravuth, Keorasmey, Kunthea, Ratha and Leanghy boycotted the court, refusing to participate if the hearing couldn’t be documented.

“The court seems to be pushing really quick as if they wanted the trial to end quickly,” Chandaravuth told Mongabay after the third hearing on June 11. “The judges questioned four people on the same day without any in-depth discussion.”

The questions, he added, did not seem relevant to the charges of plotting against the government or insulting the king. Instead, Chandaravuth said, the court seemed focused on establishing the source of Mother Nature Cambodia’s money and training in a bid to paint the activism group as a foreign-funded and internationally trained organization. This allegation has been repeatedly pushed by pro-government media.

The European Union’s delegation to Cambodia issued a short statement on the afternoon of July 2, stating, “The European Union and its Member States Belgium, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands and Sweden are deeply concerned about the increasing persecution and arrests of human rights defenders in Cambodia.”

They called the verdict “a matter of concern” and urged the Cambodian government to uphold democratic standards, including the right to peaceful protest.

Marc Thayre, deputy chief of mission at the British Embassy in Cambodia, called the sentencing “disconcerting” and said, “The issues [Mother Nature Cambodia] raise are legitimate concerns and the actions taken against them are disproportionate.”

Meanwhile, U.N. Human Rights spokesperson Thameen Al-Kheetan warned that the U.N.’s monitoring of the trial raised concerns that the proceedings did not comply with Cambodia’s binding obligations on human rights.

“The increasing use by Cambodian authorities of lèse majesté and other articles of Cambodia’s criminal code to penalize the exercise of human rights is deeply worrying,” Al-Kheetan said in a statement.

(Left to right) Ly Chandaravuth, Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoreaksmey, Thun Ratha and Yim Leanghy of Mother Nature Cambodia say farewell to supporters before entering the court on May 29, 2024. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.
(Left to right) Ly Chandaravuth, Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoreaksmey, Thun Ratha and Yim Leanghy of Mother Nature Cambodia say farewell to supporters before entering the court on May 29, 2024. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.

Chin Malin, spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice, read but did not respond to questions sent by Mongabay via the messaging app Telegram.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both separately condemned the sentencing of the Mother Nature Cambodia activists, with Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for research, Montse Ferrer, releasing a statement calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the environmental activists.

“Today’s decision is another crushing blow to Cambodia’s civil society. Mother Nature Cambodia is a renowned activist group that has brought attention to environmental degradation fueled by long-standing corruption in the country,” Ferrer said in the statement. “Instead of listening to young leaders at the forefront of the environmental movement, the Cambodian government has chosen to jail those that dare to speak out.”

Bryony Lau, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, wrote, “The verdict is devastating for the 10 activists, who face between six to eight years in prison for their efforts to protect Cambodia’s environment. It also sends an appalling message to Cambodia’s youth that the government will side with special interests over the environment every chance it gets.”

Calls to drop the charges against the activists have been sounding off from international NGOs and civil society groups since the trial began, with CIVICUS, a global network of civil society organizations, writing an open letter to Cambodia’s Justice Minister Koeut Rith on June 5, in which the advocacy group recommended reforming the criminal code.

According to Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher at CIVICUS, the Ministry of Justice never replied to the letter.

“The conviction and sentencing of the ten activists today, associated with environmental group, Mother Nature Cambodia, is a blatant attempt to silence them for their activism,” Benedict said in an email. “CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, call on authorities to overturn this unjust conviction and end the harassment and criminalization of activists in Cambodia.”

Benedict went on to say that the conviction of the environmentalists stands in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Cambodia has been a party to since 1992.

“CIVICUS calls on the government to halt the use of restrictive laws to criminalize human rights defenders and other activists and repeal all provisions in the Criminal Code that criminalize the exercise of fundamental freedoms in Cambodia,” Benedict added.

Mother Nature Cambodia were named Right Livelihood laureates in September 2023, becoming the first Cambodians to win the prestigious award for “their fearless and engaging activism to preserve Cambodia’s natural environment in the context of a highly restricted democratic space.”

Right Livelihood has also condemned the arrest and called for the activists to be released immediately.

Online, videos of their arrest on the morning of July 2 have prompted a deluge of comments from Cambodian netizens, many of whom declared, “Justice is dead in Cambodia.”

Mother Nature Cambodia’s ‘relentless’ activism earns Right Livelihood Award

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