Why Cambodian environmental activists were sentenced to 8 years in prison

They were charged with conspiring against the state

Cambodia environmental activists An environmental activist, center, is escorted by polices personnel near Phnom Penh Municipality Court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia | AP

Ten environmental activists who campaigned against destructive infrastructure projects and alleged corruption are now facing jail terms in Cambodia. The activists were sentenced on Tuesday to 6-8 years in prison on charges of conspiring against the state. 

Three members of the Mother Nature Cambodia group were also convicted of insulting Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni. They were sentenced to an additional two years in prison. 

Only five of the accused attended the trial. They were arrested outside the court after the verdict. They had marched to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with supporters in protest against the proceedings. 

Phun Keoraksmey, 22, an accused, said that she was prepared to go to prison. 

"But I never want to go back to jail because I never did anything wrong. But I will never run from what I am responsible for. I chose this way, I chose this path," she said. 

The Cambodian human rights group Licadho termed the verdict as "disappointing". 

While ruling, the court pointed out that the youth activists, today, fighting for environmental protections and democratic principles are in effect acting against the state.

Mother Nature group last year was the co-winner of the Right Livelihood Award, which is considered as the Alternative Nobel, issued by a Stockholm-based foundation to organisations and individuals working to safeguard the dignity and livelihoods of communities around the world.

In 2017, Mother Nature was deregistered as a nongovernmental organisation by the Cambodian government. While its members vowed to carry on its work, with some serving jail time in recent years.

Mother Nature has campaigned against environmentally destructive infrastructure projects, exposed corruption in the management of Cambodia's natural resources, and mobilised young Cambodians to defend the country's dwindling biodiversity, it said in a statement.

It noted that Cambodia has one of the world's highest deforestation rates.

Gonzalez-Davidson and two other defendants were charged with defaming the king in statements made during an online meeting.

Cambodia's government has long been accused of using the judicial system to persecute critics and political opponents. 

Under former Prime Minister Hun Sen, who held power for almost four decades, the government was widely criticised for human rights abuses including suppression of freedom of speech. His son, Hun Manet, succeeded him last year, but there have been few signs of political liberalisation. 


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