Two Mother Nature Activists Freed From Jail in Cambodia

Two Cambodian environmental activists who had received one-year jail sentences, partly suspended, for charges arising from photographing the controversial practice of commercial sand dredging, were released from prison on Wednesday.

Activists Dim Kundy and Hun Vannak had been detained since Sept. 12, 2017, in Koh Kong province on charges of inciting others to commit crimes and violations of privacy.

The pair were taken into custody while taking photos of dredging operations along the Cambodian coast carried out by a firm linked to the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

The activists' NGO, Mother Nature, formally disbanded days after the arrests, citing harassment and pressure on staff from Cambodian authorities.

Speaking to RFA's Khmer Service following their release, Dim Kundy and Hun Vannak criticized the court's actions against them and vowed to continue their work protecting Cambodia's environment in spite of the risk of further arrests.

Illegal sand dredging still continues, and sand continues to be exported, Dim Kundy told RFA.

We will continue to monitor these illegal activities in Koh Kong and across Cambodia, and we will continue to work against the destruction of natural resources, he said, naming threats posed by deforestation, mining, and dam construction in Cambodia.

There is no way we can avoid harassment by the authorities, and they can arrest us anytime they want. We have the support of our people to continue our work.

We believe in our work. We believe in our supporters, added Hun Vannak. We have noted that against all odds, the number of environmental activists [in Cambodia] is growing.

More and more people are aware of the environment, he said.

Suspended sentences, fines

On Jan. 26, the Koh Kong Trial Court sentenced Dim Kundy and Hun Vannak to a year's imprisonment and fines of 1 million riel (U.S. $250). But the court suspended or waived seven months, leaving them with five months in prison, with credit for time served since mid-September.

The activists' families and supporters, who were present in court when the verdict was announced, rejected the sentences as unjust, but said with the men's release likely in two weeks, they were not contemplating an appeal.

Registered with Cambodian authorities in 2013, Mother Nature had worked over the years to protect Cambodia's environment, exposing irregularities in Cambodia's trade in dredged sand with foreign countries and helping villagers organize to protect their land.

Mother Nature founder Alejandro Gonzalez Davidson, who has been based in Spain since he was expelled from Cambodia in 2015, had predicted that the activists would not stand a chance in a court system under heavy influence from local tycoons and politicians.

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