Green activists imprisoned in Cambodia for ‘anti-state plot’

Cambodia has imprisoned 10 environmental activists who raised concerns about river pollution, accusing them of plotting against the government—a case critics claim is politically motivated.

The activists, from the group Mother Nature, were charged in 2021 after documenting waste run-off into Phnom Penh’s Tonle Sap river near the royal palace. Three activists, including Spanish co-founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, also convicted of insulting the king, received eight-year jail sentences and $2,500 fines. The other seven received six-year terms. Prosecutors have not clarified how the activists violated laws against insulting the king or conspiring against the government.

Since its inception in 2013, Mother Nature has opposed environmentally harmful projects and scrutinized the management of natural resources in Cambodia. They share their findings through engaging and informative videos on Facebook, where they have 457,000 followers. Environmental groups have accused Cambodian leaders of profiting from the country’s natural resources, a claim the government denies, instead accusing Mother Nature of inciting social unrest.

Gonzalez-Davidson, previously banned from entering Cambodia, called the verdict a “disastrous decision by the Hun family regime.” He asserted that such verdicts ultimately backfire by inspiring others to continue the activists’ work.

Cambodia’s law against insulting the king, in effect since 2018, is criticized for stifling dissent. Under former Prime Minister Hun Sen, opposition parties were dismantled, independent media shut down, and activists jailed. His son, Hun Manet, continues to face criticism from Mother Nature for enforcing laws unequally in favor of the wealthy elite.

Four activists present at the hearings were arrested immediately, with witnesses reporting violent arrests. Warrants were issued for the other six, including Gonzalez-Davidson. Earlier, dozens of Mother Nature supporters, dressed in mourning white, marched towards the court with posters demanding freedom and rights.

Rights groups condemned the verdict as a blow to Cambodia’s civil society and environmental movement. Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, Bryony Lau, criticized the government for prioritizing special interests over the environment. Licadho’s outreach director, Naly Pilorge, expressed hope that the activists’ work would inspire others to continue advocating for a democratic Cambodia.

Many convicted activists had previously served jail terms for their activism. Long Kunthea, who was jailed for organizing protests to protect the Mekong river, told the BBC she is committed to fighting for positive change.

Mother Nature’s successful campaigns include stopping sand exports from Koh Kong province and halting a China-led hydro-dam project in the Cardamom Mountains, which threatened local ecosystems and indigenous communities. Last September, the group received the Right Livelihood Award for its “fearless activism,” with the jury praising their fight for nature and human rights in Cambodia.

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