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Arrested last year with two of his fellow environmental activists, Thun Rotha has barely seen his baby who is now 14 months old.
“He was arrested when our son was six months old,” Rotha’s wife Pat Raksmey told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a smear campaign of the powerful. He has not incited anyone. He questions those who are in power.”
Rotha is one of three members of the environmental NGO Mother Nature who were arrested in 2020 after they organised a march to the house of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to express their concern about a plan to fill in Phnom Penh’s largest lake, Boeung Tamok and develop the site.
Brought to court last week, Rotha, 29, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for “incitement to commit a felony or disturb social order” and fined $1,000, while his two female colleagues 22-year-old Long Kunthea and 19-year-old Phuong Keo Raksmey were given 18 months in jail term and the same fine after being found similarly guilty of the charge. The terms take into account time already served.
Their treatment has been condemned by the United Nations, as well as local and international NGOs, which have urged the government to release the three from jail immediately and unconditionally.
Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders called the sentencing of the activists “disgraceful”.
It “reinforces the government’s enduring policy to diminish civic space and dissenting voices,” she said.
“The verdict also shows how unable and unwilling the court is to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms that the government has voluntarily accepted,” she added.
“I am concerned about the pattern of increasing prosecution of human rights defenders in Cambodia since July 2020.”
Two other activists were also sentenced in absentia under the same charge with the court ordering their arrest.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national and the founder of Mother Nature who was expelled from the country in 2015 was sentenced to 20 months in jail, while Chea Kunthin, who is in hiding, was given 18 months in prison and fined $1,000.
“These young people were arrested for trying to protect Phnom Penh’s largest lake and preserve it for current and future generations,” said Naly Pilorge, director of LICADHO, Cambodia’s most prominent human rights NGO, which has provided legal support to the activists. “These environmental defenders have suffered for too long and we call on authorities to release them from overcrowded prisons so they can reunite with their families and communities.”
Boeung Tamok covers about 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) in the Cambodian capital and plays not only an important role in flood protection but also provides income or food for hundreds of families.
In recent years, however, the government has transferred more than 500 hectares (1,236 acres) of the lake to public institutions and private businesses – some with political connections – for development, according to sub-decrees cited by local media outlet Voice of Democracy.
The Mother Nature arrests are part of a continuing government crackdown on all forms of dissent – from protest to activism and formal opposition politics. The government has accused some protesters and opposition members of trying to topple the government by instigating a “colour revolution”.
Since July last year, the UN and LICADHO have documented the arrest of at least 24 human rights activists and while some have been released, they say more than 10 remain in detention. Those arrested include monks, rappers, a trade union leader and political opposition members, who have been critical of the government.
Gonzalez-Davidson set up Mother Nature in 2013 to help local communities organise peacefully to protect their land and expose wrongdoing. Their first campaign was against a planned hydropower dam in Areng Valley in the remote west of the country.
He says he and his team had been worried about their safety since the very beginning but will not be deterred.
“After so many years of being at least partially on the defensive, one becomes bolder and more resilient, and even more resolute in the fight for a better country, one where what little is left of the country’s natural resources are actually protected, not destroyed for the benefits of a tiny elite,” he told Al Jazeera, calling the arrests and conviction “a react to those willing to defend the common good” .
Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division says Mother Nature’s members, as well as other activists, were arrested simply for pointing out malpractice by officials.
“The government views Mother Nature as a troublesome whistle-blower that calls out the government corruption and malfeasance, especially on projects with crony capitalists that destroy the environment and the livelihoods of local people,” he said.
“Mother Nature stands up for human rights and organises communities to assert their opposition to harmful projects, and the government doesn’t want to face that kind of pressure. So, they go after Mother Nature because they think if they arrest the NGO activists, the affected villagers will not be brave enough to continue their resistance.”
Since 2003, developers have filled more than 60 percent of Phnom Penh’s lakes and more than 40 percent of its main wetland areas, according to Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, a Cambodian rights group.
The most high-profile case was Boeung Kak, once the city’s largest lake, where thousands were forcibly evicted from their homes after the area was given to a politically connected company in 2007 and pumped full of sand.
Opposition to the plan triggered regular protests. Dozens of community leaders from Beoung Kak, including well-known activist Tep Vanny, were arrested and jailed multiple times for protesting for their rights.
Pradeep Wagle, the representative of the Cambodia office of the United Nations High Commissoner for human rights, which has monitored and documented the arrests and human rights abuse in Cambodia, says his office has learned that 17 individuals including six women affiliated with human rights and community-based organisations have been charged with criminal offences since 2020.
He noted that international human rights norms and standards are binding on Cambodia and that “human rights work, in itself does not, and should not, constitute a criminal offence.”
“We would therefore urge the government to be vigorous in its efforts to ensure that people are not prosecuted for human rights-related work. We also urge the government to ensure that the right to fair and impartial justice is respected at all times.”
The Justice Ministry and Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC) spokesman Chin Malin says the criticism amounted to a political attack on the government, and said the courts were independent.
“The conviction is the decision of the court,” Malin said. “There are grounds and facts to accuse them.”
“To help all these activists [they] have to join the court procedure meaning they have to provide testimony and evidence for them to be acquitted.”
“The criticisms and political statements do not have any effect on the court and it’s not the legal way to protect the accused.”
The spokesman for the Environment Ministry Neth Pheaktra declined to comment on the case.
“The ministry of [environment] has no comment on the court’s decision,” he said.
Pat Raksmey and her husband had long expected his arrest given the sensitivities surrounding environmental activism in Cambodia.
Gonzalez-Davidson was expelled after the government was forced to abandon its hydropower plans for the Areng Valley in the face of enormous opposition.
Other activists have endured intimidation, or worse. Leng Ouch, who received the Goldman Prize for his work exposing illegal logging, has been arrested and detained at least twice in as many years.
Chut Wutty, another prominent activist, was shot and killed by military police while investigating the illegal timber trade in 2012.
Raksmey describes her husband’s conviction as “very unjust”.
“They are not guilty,” she said, calling for his release. “Not only my husband but all the youth who work to protect the environment.
“These youth should be praised and equipped with accolades not unjustly convicted in such.”
While the outlook for her family appears bleak, Raksmey says she would have no qualms about supporting her son should he decide to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“In the future if my son loves environmental work, then I’ll let and encourage him to do it,” she said. “We know we can’t live without nature, so protecting the environment is an admirable job.”