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Following the recent crackdown on dissent, civil society groups are campaigning online for the release of jailed activists, but the government has claimed the campaign is somehow illegal
PHNOM PENH--Local NGOs on Aug. 10 launched a campaign calling for the release of Cambodian activists and human rights defenders who have been jailed and, in some cases, convicted for speaking out on environmental issues.
The campaign, run by LICADHO, the Cambodian Youth Network, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, will run until Dec. 10, 2021—the 73rd International Human Rights Day.
Each week, the NGOs plan to advocate for the release of human rights defenders and highlight the critical work done by these imprisoned activists.
The debut round of advocacy centered on the six jailed Mother Nature Cambodia activists, who face what the NGOs called “outrageous charges” of plotting against the state, while two of the activists are also facing additional charges of insulting the king.
The outlawed environmental NGO Mother Nature has seen a recent uptick in harassment from the state after their activists drew attention to the in-filling of lakes in Phnom Penh and the flow of raw sewage into the capital’s waterways.
For documenting environmental destruction earlier this year and attempting to stage a one-woman protest in late 2020, Mother Nature activists have been rounded up and slapped with incitement charges, but more recently, the government attempted to brand the activists as terrorists, in a move that prompted shock and outrage among the public.
“It is time to drop these charges and release these activists and all human rights defenders now,” the NGOs said.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director for human rights monitoring at LICADHO, said that the campaign for the release of the activists is likely to continue after International Human Rights Day.
“Civil society groups can only advocate for the release of these activists online,” he said, noting that COVID-19 had made large public gatherings untenable. “This online campaign is to demand the release of these activists and is based on the law, as well as the Cambodian Constitution.”
“People know that they [Mother Nature Cambodia] work to protect the environment and natural resources,” he added.
Perhaps as a sign of the government’s dismissive approach to such campaigns, Justice Ministry Spokesperson Chin Malin said that campaigning to release imprisoned activists is a habit of a small number of civil society groups in Cambodia.
He said that as long as the government and the courts take legal action against activists who violate the law, civil society groups will always demand their release. He claimed that the NGOs had not studied the law or the case against the activists.
He then suggested that the campaign is more focused on spreading a political agenda rather than defending freedoms, but was unable to detail what political agenda the NGOs were supposedly advancing.
Malin also claimed that the NGO’s campaign is illegal but could not cite any law that was at odds with the advocacy campaign. He added that if the NGOs wanted to help activists, they should seek strong evidence, offer testimony and participate in the court proceedings rather than campaign against the court.
Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt courts have repeatedly been used to silence dissidents, opposition politicians, journalists and other critics of the government, according to the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Malin went on to claim that such a campaign does not belong in a democratic society as it doesn’t support the rule of law and human rights. He then reiterated his calls for people to respect the law.
Human rights activists have long been subject to physical and legal harassment from the state, but most charges have been regarded as politically motivated, with vague laws on incitement frequently used in response to a wide range of actions taken by activists, according to LICADHO’s report from 2020.
In September 2020, three environmentalists from Mother Nature Cambodia were arrested for their involvement in planning a one-woman peaceful protest. Thun Ratha, Phuon Keoraksmey and Long Kunthea were convicted for incitement in May 2021 and charged with plotting on July 21, 2021.
Four other Mother Nature activists—Sun Ratha, Ly Chandaravuth, Yim Leanghy were charged with plotting as well as insulting King Norodom Sihamoni in June 2021.
Other human rights defenders were arrested while protesting for Rong Chhun's release, and others were arrested while their work. Most of them have been charged with incitement.
Additional reporting by Phoung Vantha