Cambodia: Government must end the persistent judicial harassment of environmental defenders

Mother Nature activists

The Government of Cambodia must drop the charges against Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC) environmental defenders and immediately release them, said human rights groups Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Asia Democracy Network (ADN), CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Earth Rights International (ERI), and Front Line Defenders.

On 20 June, environmental defenders Sun Ratha, Yim Leanghy and Ly Chandaravuth were charged with conspiracy against the government (Article 453 of the Criminal Code), which carries a sentence of five to ten years. Sun Ratha and Yim Leanghy were further charged with insulting the king (Article 437 bis), which carries a sentence of up to five years.  MNC founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson was charged in absentia for both offences. Another human rights defender, Seth Chhivlimeng who had earlier been arrested was detained for 24 hours and released without charge.

The Interior Ministry spokesperson had earlier accused them of using foreign money to commit ‘rebellious actions’ against the Government.

‘The judicial harassment of these human rights defenders is part of the government’s systematic campaign against environmental defenders who try to hold them to account for violations of environmental rights. It sends a chilling message that instead of taking steps to address the environmental damage brought on by businesses and development activities, they will target the defenders,’ said Olive Moore, Deputy Director at Front Line Defenders.

The activists were arrested on 16 June 2021 for documenting the sewage discharge into the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh. The environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia has consistently advocated for the protection of the environment through peaceful activism and worked to expose corruption behind development activities. 

For their advocacy, they have faced reprisals from the government. In May 2021, MNC activists Thon Ratha, Long Kunthea, Phuong Keo Raksmey, Alejandro Gonzales-Davidson and Khmer Thavrak Youth Movement activist Chea Kunthin were sentenced to between 18 and 20 months’ imprisonment for incitement. Three of them, Thon Ratha, Long Kunthea, Phuong Keo Raksmey, had been in pre-trial detention since September 2020, while Kunthin and Gonzales-Davidson were charged in absentia. 

The charges of conspiracy and insulting the King, point towards an escalation of harassment against defenders. 

‘Within a repressed civic space, these charges of conspiracy and insulting the king demonstrate the extent to which the government will use its arsenal of repressive laws against human rights defenders they see as a threat. These arbitrary and vague laws continue to be used to stifle dissent and peaceful advocacy and are inconsistent with Cambodia’s international human rights obligations,' said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia Pacific Researcher.

The groups call on the international community, including the United Nations, to condemn the harassment of environmental defenders, and to stand for the causes they fight for.

‘The international community must condemn this systematic targeting of human rights defenders and call for their immediate and unconditional release. They must take a stand against the escalation of harassment against defenders, including through the arbitrary use of repressive laws meant to intimidate dissenters. The protection of defenders must be of utmost priority and these attacks cannot be justified,’ said Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA. 

‘Further, they must ensure any agreements or engagements they have with the government or with its businesses comply with international human rights standards including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and do not further cause harm to defenders who continue to fight for the environment despite the massive risks they face,’ said the groups.

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) -

The Asia Democracy Network (ADN)

CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation -

EarthRights International -

Front Line Defenders -