International rights groups and embassies raised concerns over the recent arrests of Mother Nature environmentalists, as a government-aligned media outlet posted alleged evidence of a Zoom meeting where the activists appear to discuss a cartoon sketch of Prime Minister Hun Sen wearing a crown.
Sun Ratha, Yim Leanghy and Ly Chandaravuth were arrested in Phnom Penh and Kandal province last week and on Monday charged with plotting and, for Ratha and Leanghy, insulting the king.
The group’s deported co-founder, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, was also charged with both crimes, which carry potential jail sentences of five to 10 years and one to five years, respectively. An Interior Ministry spokesperson said last week that the group was using foreign money to try to topple the government.
In separate statements, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called for the three arrested activists’ release.
“Cambodia’s highly politicized courts mean that the environmental activists charged have no chance of getting a fair trial,” said Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson. “Only international pressure on the Cambodian government holds out the possibility of saving these activists from unjust prison sentences.”
Ming Yu Hah, an Amnesty International official, said the severity of charges marked “a serious escalation” in Cambodian authorities’ repression against environmental defenders and critical voices.
“These outrageous charges are a blatant attempt to silence and intimidate not only Mother Nature Cambodia, but an entire generation of Cambodian youth who have dared to stand up for human rights and environmental justice,” she said.
Amnesty International added that it had received “credible information” that the evidence being used against the activists included recordings of private Zoom meetings held by Mother Nature activists, and criticized apparent “unlawful surveillance.”
On Tuesday, government-aligned Fresh News posted a video of an apparent Zoom conference between Mother Nature members. “This video is evidence of a meeting through Zoom that the illegal Mother Nature group conducted on May 14, 2021 with plans of plotting, insulting the king,” the article says.
The video appears to show Gonzalez-Davidson and Ratha around 8 minutes in. Voices of others can also be heard discussing a cartoon of Hun Sen wearing a crown in the National Assembly.
“[They] could raise [their hands] with a dollar [sign] on [their] heads. Raising and then cutting the forest,” one voice says.
They discuss whether leaving the crown in the picture would be an affront to the king.
“In this photo, it shows that nowadays, the uncle is the one who has the rights to everything,” one woman says. “Even if the king has the crown, the king still has no right to do anything. General people know.”
Some crude words are used during the discussion. It is not clear from the video what the cartoon is for.
“If this movement really loved the environment and natural resources, why insult the king? Why did they insult national leaders? Insult the prime minister?” the Fresh News article says.
The group is using the guise of environmentalism to plot against the country, it says. “They used terrorism funds from various sources to overthrow Cambodia. Their activities are focused on all aspects to oppose Cambodia based on orders from a foreigner named Alex.”
The video was first posted by a Facebook page, “Get Rid of Traitors,” it adds.
Gonzalez-Davidson said: “As always I have no reply on what FreshNews claims or does, as I do not entertain what is by all means nothing but a tool by the regime to misinform and lie to the public, spread propaganda and threaten those who dare tell the truth.”
On Monday, U.S. ambassador Patrick Murphy raised concerns about the case on Twitter.
“Very troubled to hear of the arrests of more environmental youth activists. Documenting pollution is a public service, not terrorism. We urge authorities to be responsive to its citizens, not to silence them,” he said.
Murphy met with Interior Minister Sar Kheng just two weeks ago to discuss prosecutions against environmental activists. The U.S. pulled funding for government entities involved in the protection of the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary last week.
The Australian Embassy also raised concerns about the arrest of the three activists on social media on Tuesday.
“We do not believe that peaceful action of this kind is a threat to political or social stability, and we encourage the Royal Government of Cambodia to support Cambodia’s young people to express their concerns on the issues they care about,” it said.
The Swedish delegation in Cambodia issued a similar Twitter post Tuesday morning.
“Sweden is concerned about recent legal actions against young environmental activists in Cambodia. Civil engagement, access to information, transparency and dialogue key components for sustainable development. Engaged youth is part of the future and should be encouraged,” it said.
Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg also shared a news article about the case on Tuesday, adding: “All over the world environmental defenders are being threatened, arrested and even killed. We who are privileged must raise our voice to speak up against these human rights violations. This is outrageous. #DefendTheDefenders”
A national team footballer and some entertainers posted in support of Mother Nature earlier this week.
Seventy-five NGOs, unions and land rights communities issued a joint statement on Tuesday afternoon calling for the environmentalists’ release, saying it was “part of the targeted and outrageous persecution of frontline environmental defenders and grassroots activists by the government.”
“Authorities should stop imprisoning and start listening to our youth activists who are on the front line of documenting the risks Cambodia faces from natural resource exploitation and environmental degradation. These activists are tirelessly and selflessly working for the nation’s best interests,” the statement said.
It added that Leanghy is a 32-year-old Master’s student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Institute of Foreign Languages, Ratha a 26-year-old accountant, and Chandaravuth a 22-year-old law student at the Royal University of Law and Economics.
Additional reporting by Danielle Keeton-Olsen