A Cambodian judge on Monday sent three young activists to Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Sar Prison on an order of pre-trial detention, in a move one rights group called an attack on young Cambodians trying to protect their country’s environment.
Two of the three—Sun Ratha, 26, and Yim Leang Hy, 32—have now been charged with conspiracy and with lèse-majesté, or insulting the king. The third youth activist—Ly Chandaruth, 22—has been charged with plotting to topple Cambodia’s government.
Members of Cambodia’s Mother Nature environmental protection group, the group could face between five to 10 years in prison on conviction. Mother Nature founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, now living outside Cambodia, also faces charges of conspiracy.
Sun Ratha and Ly Chandaravuth were arrested with another activist, Sith Chhivmeng, by Phnom Penh police on June 16 while filming the drainage of sewage and other waste into the Tonle Sap River in front of the Royal Palace in the capital’s Daun Penh district.
Separately, authorities in Kandal province arrested Mother Nature activist Yim Leang Hy at his hometown in the province’s Koh Thom district. Sith Chhivmeng was later released after 24 hours of questioning by policy in Phnom Penh.
Sam Sok Kong, a lawyer for the trio still held, condemned the move by investigating judge In Vannah to send the young activists to Prey Sar, where cases of COVID-19 infection are now surging among inmates, he told RFA on June 21.
“The charges against them are grave, but they were working to build a public movement to protect the environment,” the lawyer said.
“They want to see the government handle environmental issues transparently and with accountability. I feel that they were only trying to help society, which is the right of all [our country’s] citizens,” he said, adding that he is now planning to file an appeal for the activists’ release on bail.
Duong Ry, mother of detained youth activist Sun Ratha, called the judge’s action against her daughter a grave injustice and urged to court to release her, describing Sun Ratha as “a very good citizen who always reached out to help villagers in various districts and provinces.”
“I have never seen her do anything wrong, and instead have always heard her praised by other people. This is all so unfair to her,” she said.
Sun Ratha is an accountant and recent graduate of the University of Cambodia who studied there on a scholarship, while Yim Leang Hy is a post-graduate scholarship student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Institute of Foreign Languages and Ly Chandaravuth is a senior majoring in law at the Royal University of Economics and Law.
Rights groups condemn arrests
Also speaking to RFA, representatives of Cambodia-based rights groups condemned the charges filed against the three young activists, with Am Sam Ath—deputy director of the rights group Licadho—calling their arrests a violation of their freedom of expression and right to participate in activities protecting the environment.
“These charges [against them] will only invite more criticism of the government itself,” he said.
“The charges against these young activists are an attempt to kill the patriotic and national conscience of the younger generation,” said Ven. Buth Buntenh, founder of the Monk Network for Social Justice. “It is like destroying young bamboo shoots so that those shoots will not grow and become bamboo trees in the future,” he said.
“This is an insult to our own people and will only lead neighboring countries to look down on us,” he added.
Speaking to RFA on June 20—the day before the three activists were sent to Prey Sar—Mother Nature founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson said their arrests will now clear the way for private companies or businessmen to destroy Cambodia’s environment at will.
“Whether it is cutting down trees in Prey Lang forest, illegal logging of rosewood in the Kravanh mountain range, dredging sand along the Mekong river or in Koh Kong, or mining for gold in Preah Vihear or Mondulkiri provinces, this will all now be more convenient for them,” he said.
“And there will be no obstacles for them now to persecute local people and evade taxes.”
“Companies and individuals involved in illegal business activities are going to profit from these arrests,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Richard Finney.