Cambodia: "Outrageous" conviction of five environmental activists must be overturned

Responding to reports that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday convicted and sentenced five environmental activists, Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research said: 

“This outrageous conviction is a blatant attempt to silence these young human rights defenders in retaliation for their peaceful work to protect Cambodia’s natural resources. This clearly violates the activists’ right to freedom of expression and constitutes an attack on all human rights defenders in Cambodia. 

Mother Nature Cambodia has long stood out as one of the most effective, popular, and creative activist groups in Cambodia.
Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International's Deputy Regional Director for Research

“It serves as a threat to any young person who dares to stand up for human rights and environmental justice in Cambodia. The Cambodian authorities must overturn this unjust conviction and release these brave activists immediately and unconditionally. 

“Mother Nature Cambodia has long stood out as one of the most effective, popular, and creative activist groups in Cambodia. Their unique and impactful work has won major environmental and human rights victories and helped to conserve Cambodia’s precious natural resources in the face of relentless greed, corruption and state repression. 

“These youths have done absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, they are operating at the frontline of the global struggle for environmental and climate justice. Their peaceful efforts to raise public awareness of threats to the environment should be embraced and celebrated by the Cambodian government. Instead, they and their fellow activists are relentlessly harassed and arbitrarily criminalized.”  

Background 

Three of the activists convicted - Long Kunthea (22), Phuon Keoraksmey (19)and Thun Ratha (29) - have been held in pre-trial detention since their arbitrary arrest in September 2020. They were sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison for seeking to protest government plans to fill and privatize a major lake in the capital, Phnom Penh. All three are recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. 

The three, whom are all affiliated with environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia, were arrested soon after publicly announcing a plan to undertake a two-person march to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house to express concerns regarding plans to privatize and develop Boeung Tamok lake,Phnom Penh’s largest remaining lake. 

Long Kunthea and Phuon Keoraksmey were sentenced to 18 months in prison for “incitement to commit a felony or disturb social order” under Articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code and fined 4 million riel each (approximately $1,000). Thun Ratha was sentenced to 20 months under the same charges and also fined 4 million riel. 

Two more activists were convicted in the same case and sentenced in absentia under the same charges, with warrants issued for their arrest. Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national and a co-founder of Mother Nature Cambodia, was sentenced to 20 months in prison, while Chea Kunthin, a member of activist group Khmer Thavarak, was sentenced to 18 months. Both were also fined 4 million riel each. Gonzalez-Davidson was deported from Cambodia in 2015 and has been refused re-entry since then. 

Mother Nature Cambodia is a prominent campaign group which has won several major environmental victories. Using a combination of community mobilization, direct action and public awareness raising, in 2015 they successfully convinced the Cambodian authorities to drop plans to build a major hydroelectric dam in Cambodia’s Areng Valley, which had gravely threatened local Indigenous communities. 

In 2016, their work to expose widespread environmental destruction and human rights abuses linked to the mining and export of sand from coastal areas of Cambodia led to yet another major victory – a total export ban on coastal sand announced by the Cambodian government. 

Mother Nature Cambodia activists have faced a litany of repression in recent years, with many activists arbitrarily charged and imprisoned. Several of its activists have been imprisoned on baseless criminal charges of “incitement”. The group has been accused of “causing chaos in society” and characterized as “illegal” by Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior because it is not registered under Cambodia’s notorious NGO Law.