A court in Cambodia has added new anti-government conspiracy charges against three environmental activists who already are serving jail terms of up to 20 months for incitement convictions, in a move that could keep them in prison for 10 years, their lawyer said Wednesday.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court added the charges against Mother Nature Cambodia activists Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoraksmey, and Thun Ratha on Monday after investigation judge Im Vannak covertly brought each of them into the court for questioning without the presence of an attorney, said their lawyer Sam Chamroeun.
The trio now faces an additional sentence of at least 10 years each if convicted on the conspiracy charge.
On May 5, the three activists were sentenced on incitement charges related to protests against forest and water projects, along with Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national and founder of Mother Nature Cambodia, who was convicted in absentia after being expelled from the country and denied re-entry. Human rights groups have condemned the verdicts.
In June, Gonzalez-Davidson was charged by the same court with plotting against and insulting the country’s king when authorities arrested three of his Mother Nature colleagues — Sun Ratha, Yim Leanghy, and Ly Chandaravuth — who were placed in pretrial detention.
RFA could not reach Im Vannak for comment Wednesday.
Thun Ratha’s wife, Bat Raksmey, told RFA that it was unjust for the court to charge her husband and the two others with a crime because they were working to protect the environment for the sake of society. She said the court is a rubber-stamp institution.
“To be honest, the law is being used based on one person’s mouth,” she said. “This is not the rule of law because insofar as they have worked to protect the environment, the court has incorrectly charged them with ‘conspiracy’ instead. There is no justice for my husband.”
Long Kunthea’s sister, Long Soklin, told RFA on Wednesday that her sibling was not plotting against the government.
“The conspiracy charge is very unjust,” she said. “They are [the court] hiding information about the new charge. They led them to the court in secret. What evidence did they have?”
“They were protecting the environment and not illegal loggers,” she said, noting that the government doesn’t hesitate to arrest environmentalists while it fails to arrest illegal loggers in Prey Long, a 3,600-square-kilometer (1,390-square-mile) nature reserve forest in northern Cambodia.
Long Soklin said she is concerned about her sister’s well-being in prison, where she’s been for more than a year, and that she has sent her food and money.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), an organizations that promotes and protects political and civil rights in the Southeast Asian nation, said the new charges against the activists are groundless and will seriously affect their ability to have a fair trial.
“These individuals are being detained on charges already, and now the court has added another charge. It will affect their ability to get fair trials,” she said, noting that they are having difficulty accessing their attorney on the conspiracy charge.
Chak Sopheap said that the new charge is intended to send a message to other environmentalists that protecting environment will be punished — contrary to the government’s commitment to preserve its natural resources.
“The authorities should stop persecuting and labeling activists who don’t work for their benefit but for the sake of Cambodia’s natural resources,” she said.
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