Three Mother Nature environmentalists were sentenced to jail for 18 to 20 months for incitement over their activism, while two others, including the group’s founder, were also found guilty in absentia.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court announced the verdict on Wednesday morning in a courtroom newly equipped with transparent screens and other Covid-19 preventative measures. Judge Li Sokha, wearing a mask, read out the verdict as the three defendants, Phuon Keoreaksmey, Long Kunthea and Thun Ratha, stood up holding hands.
Sokha said that based on the evidence, witnesses and the answers of the defendants, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court concluded that the three were guilty of incitement.
Ratha was handed 20 months in jail and a fine of 4 million riel, or about $1,000, for incitement to disturb social security. Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the group’s co-founder who has been deported from Cambodia, was given the same sentence for being an accomplice.
Keoreaksmey, Kunthea and another activist tried in absentia, Chea Kunthin, were given 18 months and the same 4 million riel fine.
The court also issued arrest warrants against Gonzalez-Davidson and Kunthin and ordered the confiscation of materials belonging to them.
Ratha said aloud to reporters as he departed the courtroom: “This is very unjust. Sentencing people who just care about nature … they are very eager for trials.”
“The Khmer court is like this. Please tell people that we are still strong,” he said.
Defense lawyer Sam Chamroeun said he would discuss the verdict and a possible appeal with his clients.
Kunthea, Ratha and Keokeaksmey were arrested in September while planning a one-woman march by Kunthea to raise awareness about the infilling of Boeng Tamok, one of Phnom Penh’s last lakes.
During their trial, the court presented the group’s environmental video campaigns as evidence of incitement to disturb social security. At the time, judge Sokha questioned the merits of the campaigns, including saying the lake’s filling would be good for traffic. The activists defended the accusations by saying that raising concerns through activism was not incitement.
The group has continued to produce campaign videos since the arrests, though members have begun to cover their faces to avoid legal action.
Other campaigns pursued by the group include opposing a hydropower dam in Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley, investigating illegal sand dredging and exports, advocating for the protection of Koh Kong Krao island, and raising awareness about the privatization of large tracts of Kampot province’s Bokor National Park.
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said the convictions were an attempt to destroy “a thorn in the government’s side” through “bogus criminal charges.”
“These environmental activists show incredible bravery by shining a light on corruption and rights abuses connected to crony business projects that threaten Cambodia’s natural resources and biodiversity,” Robertson said.
He called on foreign governments, U.N. agencies and donors to demand that the convictions be reversed.
“Cambodia obviously thinks this outrageous and unacceptable persecution of these activists for exercising their rights and standing up for the environment will not be noticed by the international community because they are distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic,” Robertson said.
Updated at 12:11 p.m. with photos from the court.
Updated at 12:26 p.m. with comment from Human Rights Watch.