Four activists arrested this week are all from environmental group Mother Nature, a rights group has said — as an Interior Ministry official alleged the “rebellious” group was using foreign money to try to topple the government.
On Friday, neither National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun nor a municipal court spokesperson could be reached to clarify the latest status of those arrested.
Three activists were reportedly taken into custody in Phnom Penh and a fourth in Kandal province on Wednesday, but on Thursday Kim Khoeun said there were only three arrests.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights, in an alert issued Thursday, said all four activists were members of the environmental group Mother Nature. The three arrested in Phnom Penh were filming sewage on the Riverside, it said.
Three previous Mother Nature activists were arrested in September and found guilty of incitement last month.
According to Kim Khoeun on Thursday, the three latest arrests faced a more serious potential charge of plotting, punishable by five to 10 years in jail.
On Friday, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the government’s policy was to protect the environment and forests, and it welcomed people, including from civil society, who worked to protect them.
“But this group is different and authorities have evidence that they got foreign money to commit rebellious actions to incite [people] to topple the government,” Sopheak said.
“We have enough documents to arrest any of them. Please, all of them, go solve it at the court and have their lawyer defend them. Where did they get their money from? What have they used that money for and for what purpose? If they truly protect the environment, we are happy to work together.”
Mother Nature co-founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported from Cambodia in 2015 and lives in Spain, said the government was a “paranoid dictatorship” to see enemies and conspiracies to topple it “when a few young Cambodians are simply taking a few images of sewage being poured into a river.”
“We are dealing [with] it in the only way there is really: re-group, re-strategize, and keep going forward, smarter and more resolute than before,” Gonzalez-Davidson said, criticizing the conflicting information being released by authorities on the arrests.
He said he could not say how many members were in Mother Nature “for security reasons,” and regarding funding said, “Our major source of finances has always been volunteering and self funds, as well as Cambodians (abroad and inside the country) who want to see a better country.”
“As long as the Hun Sen regime continues to be in charge of the state, any person or group who dares to publicly say that two and two equals four is going to continue being under threat,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager at rights group Licadho, said the arrests were intimidation. “We see this as a witch hunt and a threat against environmental activists,” he said.
Sam Ath also noted that the latest arrests came after a recent meeting between U.S. ambassador Patrick Murphy and Interior Minister Sar Kheng about the prosecution of environmental activists.
On Thursday, the U.S. ended aid to government entities to protect the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary to redirect it to civil society, the private sector and local efforts.
Following the sentencing of the three previously arrested Mother Nature activists last month, the British, American and Australian embassies posted messages online that speaking out peacefully on environmental issues was a human right.
“All environment activists are under threat and intimidation,” Sam Ath said. “We do not know what kind of evidence the authorities have or [what] crimes, but if we look into their activities in the past on social media and in the field, [they] are activities to protect the environment.”
“This is to break the spirit of people who want to protect the environment, like this group.”
Additional reporting by Michael Dickison