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Cambodia: Judicial harassment against environmental rights defenders

flag-g85f905e7e_640 partners have been informed about the arbitrary detention and judicial harassment of environmental rights defenders Sun Ratha, Seth Chhiv Limeng, Ly Chandarvuth, and Yim Leanghy, and the judicial harassment of Alejandro González-Davidson. All of them are members of Mother Nature Cambodia.

On June 16, 2021, at around 11am, police in Phnom Penh’s Duan Penh District arrested Sun Ratha, Seth Chhiv Limeng, and Ly Chandarvuth, after the three had documented and filmed runoff into the Tonle Sap River near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. They were subsequently brought to the Police Private Security Management Department of the Ministry of Interior for questioning. On the same day, Yim Leanghy was summoned for questioning by police in Koh Thom District, in Kandal Province, and arrested upon his arrival to the police station. He was subsequently transferred to the Police Private Security Management Department of the Ministry of the Interior in Phnom Penh.

While Seth Chhiv Limeng was released without charges on June 17, 2021, Sun Ratha, Ly Chandarvuth, and Yim Leanghy appeared before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on June 18, 2021. Ly Chandarvuth was charged with “plotting” (Article 453 of the Criminal Code). Sun Ratha, Yim Leanghy, and Alejandro González-Davidson were charged with “plotting” and “insulting the King (Article 437(bis) of the Criminal Code. Alejandro González-Davidson, who lives overseas was charged in absentia. If convicted, they could face up to 10 years in prison for “plotting” and 5 years for “insulting the King”. At the time of publication of this urgent appeal, Sun Ratha remains detained in Phnom Penh’s Correctional Centre 2, and Ly Chandarvuth and Yim Leanghy in Phnom Penh’s Correctional Centre 1.

This is not the first time that Mother Nature Cambodia activists have faced harassment. On May 5, 2021, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Long Kunthea, Phoun Keo Reaksmey, and Thun Ratha to prison sentences ranging from 18 to 20 months and to a fine of 4 million riel (approximately 825 Euros) each on charges of “incitement to cause societal chaos” (Articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code), after 8 months of pre-trial detention. Thun Ratha remains detained in Phnom Penh’s Correctional Centre 1, while Long Kunthea and Phoun Keo Reaksmey remain detained in Phnom Penh’s Correctional Centre 2. On the same day, Alejandro González-Davidson was sentenced in absentia to 20 months in prison on charges of being an “accomplice” (Article 29 of the Criminal Code).

Cambodia is ranked 144 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Alarmed at the prospect of losing the July 2018 general elections after more than 30 years in power, Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a major pre-emptive offensive against the media that devastated the journalistic landscape. Many radio stations and newspapers were banned outright while the staff at other news organisations were “purged”. As a result of this clean sweep, Cambodians now only have access to news provided by major media groups directly linked to Hun Sen, such as the online news agency Fresh News, which pumps out pro-government propaganda. Against this grim backdrop, the creation of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance, or CamboJA, in late 2019 has provided the country’s journalists with small breathing space and represents a limited concession by the government. In 2020, the government nonetheless used the Covid-19 crisis to impose more censorship, blocking news sites, arresting journalists and proclaiming a state of emergency that gave it unprecedented power to censor and spy on the traditional and online media.