Arrested last year with two of his fellow environmental activists, Thun Rotha has barely seen his 14-month-old baby.
“He was arrested when our son was six months old,” Rotha’s wife, Pat Raksmey, told Al Jazeera.
“It is a campaign to discredit the powerful. He has not incited anyone. It questions those in power. “
Rotha is one of three members of the environmental NGO Mother Nature who were arrested in 2020 after organizing a march at the home of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to express concern over plans to fill Phnom Penh’s largest lake , Boeung Tamok and develop it. the place.
Put on trial last week, 29-year-old Rotha was sentenced to 20 months in prison for “inciting a felony or disturbing social order” and fined $ 1,000 while his two companions of employment Long Kunthea, 22 and 19 old Phuong Keo Raksmey received 18 months in prison and the same fine after being found guilty of the charge. The conditions take into account the time already published.
His treatment has been condemned by the United Nations, as well as by local and international NGOs, which have urged the government to release the three from prison immediately and unconditionally.
Mary Lawlor, the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, called the activists’ sentence “shameful”.
“It reinforces the government’s enduring policy to lessen civic space and dissenting voices,” he said.
“The verdict also shows the inability and willingness of the court to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms that the government has voluntarily accepted,” he added.
“I am concerned about the increasing pattern of human rights defenders’ processes in Cambodia since July 2020.”
Defense of the “common good”
Two other activists were also sentenced in absentia on the same charge as the court ordered their arrest.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national and founder of Mother Nature who was expelled from the country in 2015, was sentenced to 20 months in prison, while Chea Kunthin, who is in hiding, received 18 months in prison and was fined $ 1,000.
“These young people were arrested for trying to protect Phnom Penh’s largest lake and preserve it for present and future generations,” said Naly Pilorge, director of LICADHO, Cambodia’s largest human rights NGO, which has provided legal support to activists. “These environmentalists have been suffering for too long and we call on the authorities to release them from overcrowded prisons so that they can reunite with their families and communities.”
Boeung Tamok covers approximately 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) in the Cambodian capital and not only plays an important role in flood protection, but also provides income or food to hundreds of families.
In recent years, however, the government has transferred more than 500 hectares of the lake to public institutions and private companies – some with political connections – for development, according to sub-decrees cited by local media Voice of Democracy.
Mother Nature’s arrests are part of a continuing government crackdown on all forms of dissent, from protest to activism and formal opposition politics. The government has accused some protesters and members of the opposition of trying to overthrow the government by instigating a “color revolution”.
Since July last year, the UN and LICADHO have documented the detention of at least 24 human rights activists and, while some have been released, say more than ten remain in detention. Among those arrested are monks, rappers, a union leader and members of the political opposition, who have been critical of the government.
Gonzalez-Davidson created Mother Nature in 2013 to help local communities organize peacefully to protect their land and expose faults. His first campaign was against a planned hydroelectric dam in the Areng Valley, in the far west of the country.
He says he and his team were concerned about his safety from the start, but will not be deterred.
“After so many years of being at least partially on the defensive, he becomes more daring and resilient and even more determined in the fight for a better country, where what little is left of the country’s natural resources is protected, do not destroy. for the benefits of a tiny elite, “he told Al Jazeera, calling the arrests and conviction a” reaction to those who are willing to defend the common good. “
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asian division of Human Rights Watch, says members of Mother Nature, as well as other activists, were arrested simply for pointing out the malpractice of officials.
“The government sees Mother Nature as a problematic whistleblower calling for government corruption and mischief, especially in projects with crony capitalists destroying the environment and livelihoods of local people,” he said.
“Mother Nature defends human rights and organizes communities to assert their opposition to harmful projects and the government does not want to face this kind of pressure. So, they are persecuting Mother Nature because they think that if they arrest NGO activists, the affected villagers will not be brave enough to continue their resistance.
Since 2003, developers have filled more than 60 percent of Phnom Penh’s lakes and more than 40 percent of its major wetlands, according to Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, a Cambodian rights group.
The most notable case was Boeung Kak, once the largest lake in the city, where thousands were forcibly evicted from their homes after the area was handed over to a politically connected company in 2007 and bombarded with sand.
Opposition to the plan sparked periodic protests. Dozens of Beoung Kak community leaders, including well-known activist Tep Vanny, were arrested and imprisoned several times for protesting their rights.
Pradeep Wagle, the representative of the Cambodia office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has overseen and documented arrests and human rights abuses in Cambodia, says his office has learned that 17 people, including six women affiliated with human rights and community-based organizations have been charged with criminal offenses since 2020.
He noted that international human rights rules and regulations are binding on Cambodia and that “the functioning of human rights does not constitute and should not constitute a criminal offense.”
“We would therefore urge the government to be vigorous in its efforts to ensure that people are not prosecuted for human rights-related work. We also urge the government to ensure that the right to a fair and impartial justice is respected at all times. “.
Chin Malin, a spokesman for the Cambodian Ministry of Justice and Human Rights Committee (CHRC), said the criticism was a political attack on the government and that the courts were independent.
“The conviction is the court’s decision,” Malin said. “There are reasons and facts to accuse them.”
“To help all these activists [they] they must join the judicial proceedings, that is, they must provide witnesses and evidence for their acquittal. “
“Political criticism and statements have no effect on the court and is not the legal way to protect defendants.”
Environment Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra declined to comment on the case.
“The ministry of [environment] he has no comment on the court’s decision, “he said.
Pat Raksmey and her husband had been waiting for her arrest for some time given the sensitivity surrounding environmental activism in Cambodia.
González-Davidson was ousted after the government was forced to abandon its hydroelectric plans for the Areng Valley in the face of huge opposition.
Other activists have been intimidated, or worse. Leng Ouch, who received the Goldman Award for his work in uncovering illegal logging, has been arrested and arrested at least twice as many years.
Chut Wutty, another prominent activist, was shot dead by military police while investigating the illegal timber trade in 2012.
Raksmey describes her husband’s conviction as “very unfair.”
“They are not guilty,” he said, demanding their release. “Not only my husband, but all the young people who work to protect the environment.
“These young people should be praised and equipped with recognitions not unjustly condemned for it.”
While his family’s prospects look bleak, Raksmey says he would have no hesitation in supporting his son in case he decides to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“In the future, if my son loves environmental work, I will leave him and encourage him to do so,” he said. “We know we can’t live without nature, so protecting the environment is an admirable job.”