Cambodia accused of conducting political trial as it jails green activists

Human Rights Watch has accused the government of attempting to ‘muzzle criticism’.

Cambodian environmental activist Phuon Keoraksmey is arrested outside the Phnom Penh municipal court after a verdict in Phnom Penh on July 2, 2024. - A Cambodian court on July 2 sentenced 10 environmentalists to between six and eight years in jail for plotting to commit crimes in their activism -- the latest legal crackdown on the country's green campaigners. (Photo by TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP)
Cambodian environmental activist Phuon Keoraksmey is arrested outside the Phnom Penh municipal court in Phnom Penh on July 2 [Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP]

A Cambodian court has convicted a group of environmental activists of plotting against the government and insulting the king.

The 10 activists, from conservation group Mother Nature, were sentenced on Monday to between six and eight years in jail. Human rights NGOs claimed that the trial was intended to “muzzle criticism of government policies”.

The charges relate to Mother Nature’s activism between 2012 and 2021, documenting suspected pollution in the Tonle Sap River, which feeds into the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and is a major fishing hub.

The group also raised issues surrounding the filling-in of lakes in Phnom Penh, illegal logging and the destruction of natural resources across the country.

The additional charges of insulting the king, directed at three of the activists, centre on a leaked internal Zoom meeting regarding political cartooning.

Following the sentencing, four of the defendants were arrested by police outside the court, reported AFP.

Six others were sentenced in absentia, including Mother Nature’s co-founder Alejandro Gonzales-Davidson. The Spanish national was deported from Cambodia almost a decade ago.

Volunteers gather rubbish into a boat on the Tonle Sap river during World Cleanup Day in Phnom Penh on September 17, 2022. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)
Volunteers gather rubbish on a boat on the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh, on September 17, 2022 [Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP]

‘Inhumane and cruel’

The jailing of the activists comes amid growing concerns about freedom of expression in Cambodia under Prime Minister Hun Manet, who took power last year after the decades-long rule of his father, Hun Sen.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) last month condemned the trial as an attempt to “muzzle criticism of governmental policies”.

“This regime is not only disconnected from reality, it has also shown us how inhumane and cruel it can be towards those who dare to stand up for what is right,” Gonzales-Davidson told Reuters.

The government has previously denied the trial was politically motivated, saying it did not prosecute critics, only those who commit crimes.

The tussle over protecting or exploiting Cambodia’s natural resources has long been a contentious issue in the kingdom, with environmentalists threatened, arrested and even killed in the past decade.

Three of the activists sentenced on Tuesday had previously been jailed for organising a peaceful march protesting against the filling-in of a lake in the capital to create land for real estate developments.

From 2001 to 2015, a third of Cambodia’s primary forests – some of the world’s most biodiverse and a key carbon sink – were cleared, and tree cover loss accelerated faster than anywhere else in the world, according to the World Resources Institute.

Much of the cleared land has been granted to businesses in concessions that experts say have driven deforestation and dispossession in the country.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies