On 17 August 2021, I wrote a joint communication with other UN experts on the arrest and criminalisation of environmental rights defenders with Mother Nature Cambodia.
Ms. Sun Ratha, Mr. Ly Chandaravuth, Mr. Yim Leanghy, Mr. Alejandro González- Davidson, Ms. Long Kunthea, Mr. Thun Ratha and Ms. Phuon Keoreaksmey are environmental rights defenders and members of Mother Nature Cambodia, an environmental rights group and former non- governmental organisation founded in 2013. Mother Nature Cambodia advocates and campaigns for the preservation and protection of Cambodia’s natural environment and promotes and raises awareness about environmental rights in the country. It also provides training and financial support to victims of environmental rights violations and provides training to environmental rights defenders.
In 2017, Mother Nature Cambodia was de- registered under the Law on Associations and Non- Governmental Organisations (LANGO). However, its members continue to carry out their human rights work as a movement of concerned citizens, and have allegedly been targeted and subjected to judicial and police harassment and violence as a result.
The Government has responded to the communication, arguing that the peaceful work of the organisation amounts to “terrorism” and that the human rights defenders are “fake” environmentalists.
On 3 September 2020, Ms. Long Kunthea, Mr. Thun Ratha and Ms. Phoun Keoreaksmey were arbitrarily arrested for their participation in organising a peaceful protest calling for the protection of Phnom Penh’s Bueng Ta-mouk lake, and placed in pre- trial detention in Prey Sar Prison on 6 September 2020.
The trial of the three human rights defenders took place between the 31 March and 8 April 2021. This trial did not constitute a fair and public hearing. Although a small group of observers including journalists, NGOs and diplomats were permitted to attend, the trial was closed to the public. Access was only allowed to those who had a pre- approved entry pass. The four lawyers representing the accused were allowed to attend. It has been reported that the judge appeared to show a potential bias against the accused and put at risk the presumption of innocence, when he expressed his views that the filling of lakes, highlighted by the accused in some of their advocacy, was for the good of the country. It has also been reported that there was a lack of factual evidence underpinning the charges, and the majority of evidence was based on Facebook posts and video clips of the human rights defenders raising awareness peacefully, evidence that could not prove how their actions could amount to social chaos.
On 5 May 2021, Mr. Thun Ratha was sentenced to 20 months in prison and remains detained in Phnom Penh ’ s Correctional Centre 1, while Ms. Long Kunthea and Ms. Phoun Keoreaksmey were sentenced to 18 months in prison and remain detained in Phnom Penh ’ s Correctional Centre 2. All three were convicted of “ incitement to commit a felony ” under articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodia Criminal Code. On the same day, Mr. Alejandro González- Davidson, who was deported from Cambodia in 2015 as a result of his human rights work, was also sentenced in absentia to 20 months in prison, for “incitement by accomplice”.
Between 19 and 21 July 2021, the investigating judge at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court questioned Ms. Kunthea, Mr. Thun Ratha and Ms. Keoreaksmey over the alleged charge of “plotting”, under article 453 of the Cambodia Criminal Code. The three defenders brought for questioning by an investigating judge in the days prior to their conviction while their lawyers were not made aware of their transfer from prison for questioning nor were they present during the interviews. However, these questioning sessions have been rescheduled due to the human rights defenders’ persistence that they be questioned in the presence of their lawyers. If charged and convicted, they face
possible penalty of up to 10 years in prison. These new charges form part of the case opened against their Mother Nature Cambodia colleagues in June 2021.
On the morning of 16 June 2021, Ms. Sun Ratha, Mr. Ly Chandaravuth and presumably another human rights defender were allegedly arrested in the Duan Penh district of Phnom Penh by officers from the Central Security Department of National Police. A deputy prosecutor reportedly issued a summons for Ms. Sun Ratha and Mr. Ly Chandaravuth’s arrest to the Central Security Department of National Police, calling for investigation due to “acts of creating social insecurity”. The arrest was reportedly carried out in cooperation with local authorities. Earlier that morning, the three human rights defenders had been allegedly filming in front of the Royal Palace to document the discharge of raw sewage into the Tonle Sap River.
On the same day, 16 June 2021, Mr. Yim Leanghy was arrested in Kandal province by officers from the Koh Thom district police, in cooperation with the Central Security Department of the National Police. The arrest was made following a summons reportedly issued against Mr. Leanghy to appear before the Central Security Department of National Police. Following their arrest, the whereabouts of Ms. Sun Ratha, Mr. Yim Chandaravuth and presumably other human rights defender were not known for 24 hours; the latter was allegedly released on 17 June 2021.
On 20 June 2021, Ms. Sun Ratha, Mr. Chandaravuth and Mr. Leanghy appeared before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. All three human rights defenders were charged with “plotting” under article 453, while Ms. Sun Ratha and Mr. Leanghy were also charged with “insulting the King” under article 437 of the Cambodia Criminal Code. During the hearing, Mr. González- Davidson was allegedly charged in absentia under articles 453 and 437 of the Criminal Code.
On 21 June 2021, the three human rights defenders were transferred to Prey Star Correctional Centres 1 and 2 in Phnom Penh, where they are currently being held in pre-trial detention. There has reportedly been a recent COVID-19 outbreak in Prey Star prison.
It has been reported that the charges against them relate to their alleged use of foreign funds to undermine and overthrow the government and are not directly related to their environmental work. On 22 June 2021, a government spokesperson accused Mother Nature Cambodia of using the guise of environmentalism to plot against the government. On the same day, a video allegedly depicting a private Zoom meeting between the accused Mother Nature Cambodia members was released by Fresh News, in which they allegedly refer to the King and the Prime Minister using disrespectful language. The identity of the individuals from Mother Nature Cambodia in this video has not been verified.
In the communication we expressed our concern that the targeting of the environmental defenders appears to form part of a wider strategy of a government campaign to silence human rights defenders in the country, in particular environmental rights defenders who speak out against the government’s handling of the climate crisis who speak out against the government’s handling of the climate crisis and expose the corruption of businesses and the elite who exploit Cambodia’s natural resources.
We also expressed concern at the use of harsh charges, which carry prison sentences of up to 10 years. This is particularly concerning in light of my report to the General Assembly on 14 October 2021, which warned against the use of long term detention against human rights defenders and gave states a number of recommendations on how they can stop this practice.