Three Mother Nature environmentalists arrested last year and already serving jail terms for incitement have been handed two further charges, insulting the king and plotting, which carry maximum jail sentences of five and 10 years respectively, their lawyer said.
Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phuon Keoreaksmey were arrested in September and found guilty of incitement in May. They join fellow Mother Nature activists Sun Ratha, Yim Leanghy and Ly Chandaravuth, who were arrested last month, in being charged with the more serious crime of plotting.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong said on Wednesday that Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutors had handed Ratha, Kunthea and Keoreaksmey the two new charges in mid-June, following the arrests of the three others, and they were questioned this week without a lawyer present.
Sokong said the three environmentalists only found out about the new charges when they were called in for questioning.
The charges allegedly relate to activities beginning in 2012, he added.
Thun Ratha’s wife, Pat Raksmey, said she was finding it hard to accept the new charges and ongoing prosecution of her husband.
He had only worked to protect the environment, she said.
“I would like to ask the Royal Government as well as the court to reconsider, because my husband did not do anything wrong. He should be praised by the Royal Government, relevant officials and the court,” Raksmey said.
The government, however, has alleged that Mother Nature was working to topple the government under the guise of environmentalism.
Mother Nature founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson said authorities were trying to scare young people away from activism. But the latest charges would instead convince youths of the system’s injustice, he said.
“The tactic is to intimidate the youth of civil society so that they become inactive, so that when we are afraid, [we] dare not to do anything, cannot gather, cannot demonstrate, and cannot tell the truth in public. So, when the youth is inactive, it provides opportunities for the rulers to continue their illegal activities, to continue to destroy the environment without hindrance,” Gonzalez-Davidson said.
Am Sam Ath, a deputy director for rights group Licadho, noted that the judicial pressure on the group had not relaxed despite international pressure against the cases.
Foreign embassies in Phnom Penh as well as Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg and local celebrities have expressed support for the environmentalists arrested last month.
“These charges are further persecution and intimidation of environmental activists, meaning both those in detention and those seeking to participate in environmental protection,” Sam Ath said.
Ratha, Kunthea and Keoreaksmey were arrested last year while planning a one-woman march and video to raise awareness about the infilling of Phnom Penh’s lakes.