Civil Society Campaigns for Release of Environmental Activists

Program manager for research and advocacy at the Cambodia Youth Network, Heng Kimhong holds a placate in a campaign demanding the release of jailed environmental activists. Photo from CYN.

The Ministry of Justice has dismissed the campaign saying that the only way to help the jailed activists is through the courts

PHNOM PENH--Environmental youth groups and civil society groups on June 28 launched a campaign demanding the release of jailed environmental activists and calling for the charges, which have been widely regarded as politically motivated, to be dropped.

The online campaign “Justice4All” began after authorities detained six activists from the environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia, whose activism has highlighted the ecological cost of corruption across the country.

However, the group’s work—which mostly consisted of uploading videos online—has drawn the ire of authorities at a time when Cambodia is once again witnessing a crackdown on critics, but in the absence of a functioning opposition party, it is activists, environmentalists and journalists in the government’s crosshairs.

Earlier this month four activists associated with the environmental group were arrested while documenting raw sewage flowing into the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh. Three of the four were charged with “plotting” and “insulting the King” while the group’s exiled leader Alex Gonzalez-Davidson was also charged in absentia.

Gonzalez-Davidson was deported in 2015 and banned from re-entering Cambodia after his activism managed to halt a hydropower dam from being built in Koh Kong Province.

In May 2021, three Mother Nature activists were sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison with “incitement” after attempting to stage a one-woman protest march through Phnom Penh to draw attention to the infilling of the capital’s remaining lakes.

Heng Kimhong, program manager for research and advocacy at the Cambodia Youth Network, said that the campaign is demanding justice for all prisoners of conscience who have been turned into prisoners because of their cause or participation in society. Many others, he added, have been attacked, harassed, threatened, intimidated and warned by the authorities.

“It's a campaign calling for freedom of expression, the freedom to join in on social issues and development as the citizen in a democratic society, which as part of the so-called owners of the country and homeland, we are free to join in and to develop our country,” he said.

Kimhong added that the campaign aims to give a voice to those who have been jailed for protecting the environment and the rights of Cambodians, saying that they had not been charged in accordance with the law.

However, Chin Malin, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice, dismissed the campaign as “a political message” and said it would not affect the court’s decisions. He once again said that the evidence is clear and that the activists were criminals.

“So to help them [the activists], campaigners can only help legally, only by participating in the court’s process and show evidence and give testimony in defense over the charging and authority's evidence,” he said.

So far, the only evidence made public appears to be a private Zoom call between Mother Nature activists in which they criticize Prime Minister Hun Sen. It is unclear how the government acquired a recording on the private call, but Hun Sen has previously claimed he has the right to listen in on the private calls of citizens.

The arrests and sentencing of Mother Nature activists has garnered international criticism, with the Cambodian public, civil society groups and international NGOs calling for their release.

The Swedish Embassy in Cambodia took to Twitter to express concern over the arrest, as did the US Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy, who wrote “Very troubled to hear of the arrests of more environmental youth activists. Documenting pollution is a public service, not terrorism. We urge authorities to be responsive to its citizens, not to silence them.”

Related Articles