Three Mother Nature environmentalists — arrested while preparing a video campaign against the infilling of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tamok lake — disputed the alleged criminality of their actions while on trial on Wednesday, arguing that raising concerns is not “incitement” as charged, their lawyer said.
But the presiding judge insisted that their campaigns “create anger for the masses,” according to the lawyer.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court, which was closed to the public and journalists earlier this year amid the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, held a trial hearing for Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phuon Keoreaksmey on Wednesday, defense lawyer Sam Chamroeun said.
The defendants acknowledged they had posted campaign messages on social media and produced videos about environmental issues, but rejected characterizations of the work as incitement to disturb social security, which carries jail terms of six months to two years.
The three have already been in jail for nearly seven months since their arrest in September.
According to Chamroeun, Judge Li Sokha asked the environmentalists what their purpose was in campaigning on issues affecting Sihanoukville, Koh Kong and Boeng Tamok.
“Their intention is just to be concerned. They do not intend to incite anyone and did not incite the public. They worried,” Chamroeun said. “Like in the case of Kunthea — she said Tamok lake may disappear like other lakes.”
In recent months, lines of trucks have poured sand into one of Phnom Penh’s last lakes as Prime Minister Hun Sen signed off on a series of grants transferring the state property to institutions and private individuals, including family members of government officials.
“The judge kept saying that all these actions create anger for the masses,” Chamroeun said.
Judge Sokha could not be reached.
Ratha’s wife, Pat Raksmey, said she wanted her husband released as she believed that what he did was for the benefit of society.
“I am really worried. I do not know when the court will release him, and we feel hurt to see those who protect natural resources being arrested and charged by the court,” Raksmey said. “Their videos protect the environment. There is nothing illegal.”
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager for rights group Licadho, which provides legal representation to the three Mother Nature activists, said their prosecution was a threat against young people who care about the environment.
“They should be encouraging other young people to join the government in protecting natural resources, not accusing them,” Sam Ath said.
The judge adjourned the trial until April 8 following the morning hearing, Chamroeun, the defense lawyer, said.