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Cambodia charges environmentalists over royal insults, plotting


JUNE 21, 2021

The activists were arrested for documenting the draining of waste into Phnom Penh’s Tonle Sap river. – TANG CHHIN Sothy

A Cambodian court has charged four environmental activists with insulting the king and plotting against the government, an official said Monday, after three of them were arrested for documenting waste run-off into a river.

Unlike in neighbouring Thailand, the use of royal defamation laws in Cambodia is still a relatively new phenomenon as the legislation was only enacted in 2018.

The three activists — Sun Ratha, Ly Chandaravuth and Yim Leanghy of advocacy group Mother Nature — were arrested Wednesday for documenting the draining of waste into Phnom Penh’s Tonle Sap river.

Over the weekend they were “charged with conspiracy to plot and for insulting the king”, Plang Sophal, a spokesman for Phnom Penh Municipal Court, told AFP in a text message Monday.

Also charged was Mother Nature’s co-founder, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish environmentalist who was deported from Cambodia in 2015 after he criticized the government’s plans for a controversial dam.

Sophal did not elaborate on why the activists were hit with those particular charges.

While Cambodia has a constitutional monarch, King Norodom Sihamoni, it has long been ruled by its strongman premier Hun Sen — who is Asia’s longest-serving leader.

The lese majeste laws triggered alarm from rights groups who warned that they could be wielded as another tool to target dissent.

If sentenced, the Mother Nature activists face a maximum penalty of five years in prison for insulting the king, as well as 10 years behind bars for the conspiracy charge.

The latest charges “appear to be a threat and intimidation to other activists who wish to protect the environment”, said Am Sam Ath, deputy director of local rights group Licadho.

Mother Nature has faced a raft of legal troubles from Cambodian authorities.

Last month, three environmental campaigners affiliated with the group were sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison for organizing a peaceful march to protest against a massive lake being filled with sand in the capital.

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

Last week the US embassy condemned the “worsening” situation in Cambodia and announced that it was redirecting millions in funds from government entities to local NGOs.

Courtesy/Source: AFP