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Cambodia jails 10 environmentalists in ‘crushing blow to civil society’
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Cambodia jails 10 environmentalists in ‘crushing blow to civil society’

Ten activists from a prominent youth-led environmental group in Cambodia have been sentenced to between six and eight years in jail in a case human rights experts have widely condemned.

The activists from Mother Nature, an award-winning group of environmental campaigners, were found guilty on charges of plotting against the government, while three were also convicted of insulting the king. They denied the charges.

Four of the defendants were arrested outside the court in Phnom Penh after the verdict was delivered on Tuesday morning, according to reports. Others were sentenced in absentia.

Amnesty International said the verdict was “another crushing blow to Cambodia’s civil society”.

“Instead of listening to young leaders at the forefront of the environmental movement, the Cambodian government has chosen to jail those that dare to speak out,” said Montse Ferrer, Amnesty’s deputy regional director for research.

Human Rights Watch said the case sent “an appalling message to Cambodia’s youth that the government will side with special interests over the environment every chance it gets”.

Mother Nature, which has been praised for its use of viral videos and training to engage young Cambodians, is one of the few remaining environmental groups in the country, where freedom of expression has become increasingly restricted.

Last year, Hun Sen, who had led the country for decades, handed power to his son Hun Manet, who was named prime minister after an election in which the only major opposition party was banned from running and independent media outlets were closed down or blocked online.

Mother Nature activists have previously been imprisoned and faced intimidation. In 2023, the group won the Right Livelihood award from the Swedish charity the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, in recognition of what was described as its “fearless and engaging activism”.

Activists crying outside Phnom Penh municipal court after the verdicts and arrestsView image in fullscreen

The group was praised for successfully campaigning to prevent the Chinese-led construction of a hydroelectric dam in Areng valley, south-western Cambodia, which threatened an Indigenous community and rare species. It also helped end the environmentally damaging, and often corrupt, business of sand export from the coastal estuaries of Koh Kong.

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The group’s founder, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national who was deported from Cambodia in 2015 and sentenced on Tuesday in absentia, told Reuters the accusations of plotting against the state had not been clarified in court, but said three members were arrested after documenting suspected pollution runoff into the Tonlé Sap River in Phnom Penh in 2021.

The lese majesty charges relate to an internal Zoom meeting about political cartooning that was leaked.

Among those sentenced on Tuesday were Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoraksmey, Binh Piseth and Pork Khoeuy, who were handed six years in prison for plotting, according to Amnesty International. Three others, Gonzales-Davidson, Sun Ratha and Yim Leanghy were sentenced to eight years for both plotting and insulting the king, and also face a fine of KHR 10,000,000 (£1,900).

Source: theguardian.com