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Ten Cambodian environmental activists each sentenced to six to eight years in prison

Ten Cambodian environmental activists each sentenced to six to eight years in prison
Ten Cambodian environmental activists each sentenced to six to eight years in prison

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Ten members of a Cambodian environmental activist group that campaigned against destructive infrastructure projects and alleged corruption were each sentenced to six years in prison on Tuesday on charges of conspiracy against the state.

Three members of the group Mother Nature Cambodia were also convicted of insulting Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, receiving an additional two-year prison sentence for this, bringing their total sentences to eight years.

Only five of the defendants were present at the trial, and the others were convicted in absentia. They included four Cambodians whose whereabouts are unknown and Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national who co-founded the group and was deported in 2015 and never allowed to return to Cambodia.

The five who attended the trial were arrested outside the courthouse after the verdict and sentences were announced. They had marched with their supporters to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court dressed in traditional white clothing worn at funerals, which they said represented the death of justice in Cambodia.

Phun Keoraksmey, a 22-year-old member of the group, whose mother was by her side, said she was prepared to go to prison.

“But I never want to go back to prison, because I never did anything wrong. But I will never run away from what I am responsible for. I chose this way, I chose this path,” she said.

Cambodian human rights organization Licadho called the verdict “very disappointing.”

“Today, the court ruled that youth activists fighting for environmental protection and democratic principles are in fact acting against the state,” the court said. “It is astonishing that Cambodian authorities are condemning youth activities advocating for clean water in Phnom Penh, protecting mangroves in Koh Kong and warning against the privatization of land in protected areas, presenting this as an attack on the state.”

The group was a co-winner last year of the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes described as the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” which is given by a Stockholm foundation to organizations and individuals who work to “protect the dignity and livelihoods of communities around the world.”

Three members of the group, who were serving suspended sentences at the time, were refused permission by the Cambodian court to travel to Sweden to receive their sentences.

Founded in 2012, Mother Nature was deregistered as a non-governmental organization by the Cambodian government in 2017, but its members have vowed to continue their work, some of whom have even served prison sentences in recent years.

New York-based group Human Rights Watch last month accused Cambodian authorities of trying the activists on politically motivated charges “to silence criticism of government policies.”

“For more than a decade, Mother Nature has campaigned against environmentally destructive infrastructure projects, exposed corruption in the management of Cambodia’s natural resources, and mobilized young Cambodians to defend the country’s declining biodiversity,” the statement said. It noted that Cambodia has one of the highest deforestation rates and levels of wildlife trafficking in the world.

Gonzalez-Davidson and two other suspects were charged with insulting the king in statements they made during an online meeting.

Cambodia’s government has long been accused of using the legal system to persecute critics and political opponents. The government insists the country follows the rule of law under an electoral democracy, but parties seen as challenges to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party have been dissolved by the courts or their leaders harassed.

Under former Prime Minister Hun Sen, who ruled for nearly four decades, the government was widely criticized for human rights abuses, including suppression of freedom of expression and association. His son, Hun Manet, succeeded him last year, but there have been few signs of political liberalization.

“Rather than listening to young leaders at the forefront of the environmental movement, the Cambodian government has chosen to jail those who dare to speak out,” said Montse Ferrer, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for research, in a statement following the court ruling.

“The government has shown time and again that it will not tolerate any dissent. This ruling is yet another sign that the Cambodian government has no intention of protecting the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”

This story corrects the claim that the activists who were banned from traveling to Sweden were serving suspended prison sentences.