A week before the scheduled start of a “plotting” trial against a group of young environmentalists, the court has switched judges and postponed the case as the defendants didn’t want the same jurist that previously convicted them of incitement, according to their lawyer.
Mother Nature activists Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phuon Keoreaksmey were due to face trial on Monday, nearly two years after they were charged with plotting and insulting the king while they were already in jail for a previous incitement conviction. Fellow Mother Nature activists Sun Ratha, Yim Leanghy and Ly Chandaravuth are also charged for the same charges.
But the trial has now been delayed and the judge changed, their lawyer Sam Chamroeun said on Tuesday.
“A court clerk informed me by phone,” Chamroeun said, adding that he had yet to receive the decision in writing. “On February 6 there’s no need to go to court. They said to just wait for a new summons.”
The first incitement charge and arrest against the three environmentalists came in 2020 as the trio were planning a small march to raise awareness about the landfilling of one of Phnom Penh’s last lakes.
The later charge of plotting came after four other Mother Nature members were arrested in 2021 while filming sewage discharges at the Phnom Penh riverside.
The government says the plotting charge covers the group’s activities since 2012, and aligned media outlets have posted a private video call where the activists brainstormed cartoon ideas, including one with a crown on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s head.
Keoreaksmey said the defendants had applied late last week to change the judge from Li Sokha, who presided over their incitement conviction in May 2021.
She said her lawyer Chamroeun had informed her Tuesday morning that the judge was being changed and the trial date pushed back from the originally scheduled February 6. She had not been told who the new judge would be, Keoreaskmey added.
“We are not willing to accept him for the trial to decide on plotting, because he previously decided that we were guilty of incitement,” she said.
Ratha, another of the defendants, said the request was made to avoid emotional misgivings, but he knew the odds were stacked against him either way.
“Expecting a new judge to give us justice — we don’t expect that,” Ratha said.
The trio served more than a year in prison over the previous incitement conviction, but were released late 2021 along with many other political prisoners.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Y Rin said before the change in judge was known that the application was being considered. He could not be reached this week.
Soeng Senkaruna, spokesperson for rights group Adhoc, said the activists’ request was understandable due to the fear of a miscarriage of justice.