Cambodian environmental activists get lengthy sentences for ‘plotting against government’

Cambodian environmental activist Ly Chandraravuth (C) is arrested outside Phnom Penh municipal court after a verdict in Phnom Penh  (AFP via Getty Images)
Cambodian environmental activist Ly Chandraravuth (C) is arrested outside Phnom Penh municipal court after a verdict in Phnom Penh (AFP via Getty Images)

At least 10 environmental activists have been jailed by a Cambodian court on charges of plotting against the government and insulting the king amid fear of crackdown on opposing voices.

The award-winning environmental group Mother Nature’s founder and a lawyer confirmed the arrests of the activists who have long campaigned against environmental destruction in Cambodia, especially in development projects causing deforestation, illegal sand mining, and corruption.

Of these, five defendants were arrested outside the court in Phnom Penh on Tuesday immediately after the verdict. These activists have been sentenced for up to eight years to 10 years by the court. Mother Nature called the case politically motivated.

Supporters of the jailed activists protested on Tuesday and held white placards reading, “Justice is dead”. The group’s lawyer, Sam Chomreun, confirmed the sentences for the 10 activists.

In recent months, Cambodia has seen growing concerns around freedom of expression under the new leadership of prime minister Hun Manet, who took over the administration last year from his father’s decade-long rule.

"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," said Alejandro Gonzales-Davidson, Mother Nature’s founder.

"However, this will not be in vain. Today, a new generation of activists has been created," he said, reacting to the court order.

A Spanish national, Mr Gonzales-Davidson told Reuters he was one of three activists held guilty of infringing Cambodia’s lese majeste law and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Seven activists have received six-year jail terms for plotting against the government, added Mr Gonzales-Davidson, who was sentenced in absentia after having been deported from Cambodia almost a decade ago.

The Cambodian government has previously rejected the charges of trial being politically motivated and said it did not prosecute critics but only those who commit crimes.

Mr Gonzales-Davidson said the accusations of plotting against the state had not been clarified in court. However, three members were arrested after documenting suspected pollution run-off into the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh, the capital, in 2021.

The lese majeste charges relate to an internal Zoom meeting about political cartooning that was leaked.

International human rights groups monitoring the developments in Cambodia have warned that the Hun Manet administration is appearing intent on muzzling criticism of the government as it condemned the latest arrests.

“The verdict is devastating for the 10 activists, who face between six to eight years in prison for their efforts to protect Cambodia’s environment. It also sends an appalling message to Cambodia’s youth that the government will side with special interests over the environment every chance it gets,” the statement by the New York-based Human Rights Watch said.

It added that Cambodian prime minister Hun Manet, “like his father, former prime minister Hun Sen, has repeatedly ignored calls by United Nations experts to address the closing space for civil society and human rights defenders”.

“Development partners and others who invest in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for Cambodia should call on the government to quash these verdicts and support genuine freedom of expression and association,” the human rights group said.

The previous Cambodian administration under Hun Sen saw the opposition all but dismantled, independent media shuttered and dozens of activists jailed.