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Cambodia charges activists with 'plotting' to oust government

Greta Thunberg joins in condemnation of arrests of three environmental campaigners

Mother Nature Activists Sun Ratha, left, and Ly Chandaravuth, right, being taken from Phnom Penh Municipal Court to Prey Sar Prison on Monday. (Photo by LICADHO)

PHNOM PENH -- Cambodia's government is facing mounting condemnation after arresting and charging three young activists campaigning for better protection of the country's environment.

Ly Chandaravuth, 22, Sun Ratha, 26, and Yim Leang Hy, 32 were this week remanded in pre-trial detention at Phnom Penh's notorious Prey Sar prison, which is experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak.

The trio, who belong to the group Mother Nature, face charges of conspiracy, known as "plotting" in the Cambodian criminal code. Ratha and Leang Hy have also been charged with lese-majeste, or insulting the king. They could face up to 10 years in prison under the charges.

Mother Nature's co-founder, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported from Cambodia in 2015, was also charged in absentia.

The arrests come a month after three of the trio's Mother Nature colleagues were sentenced to 18-20 months in prison on "incitement" charges for planning a one-person march.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry was quoted in local media accusing the group of using environmental issues as part of a plot to overthrow the government.

Ratha and Chandaravuth were arrested as they documented sewage and other waste entering into the Tonle Sap River in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. The group's investigations in recent years have explored the environmental impact of sand mining, gold mining, logging and hydropower dams.

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh seen in this Oct. 20, 2020 photo.   © EPA/Jiji

Rights groups have condemned the arrests, which they say form part of a years-long crackdown against critics and opponents of the ruling Cambodian People's Party and its leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held power for more than three decades.

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg on Tuesday added her voice to the chorus of criticism surrounding what she called the "outrageous" case against the trio.

"All over the world environmental defenders are being threatened, arrested and even killed," she tweeted. "We who are privileged must raise our voices to speak up against these human rights violations."

Human Rights Watch called for the "baseless" charges against peaceful activists to be dropped. The international community should also step up its response, said the group's deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

"Foreign governments, the United Nations country team, and international donors should call on the Cambodian authorities to drop their absurd charges against the environmental activists and publicly condemn any further clampdown on peaceful activism," Robertson said.

HRW specifically pointed to UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who arrived in Cambodia on Tuesday as part of a tour of the region.

"Raab should call for activists' immediate and unconditional release, and the nearly 70 other political prisoners held by the Cambodian government," he said.

In a Tweet on Wednesday morning, Raab noted he was the first British Foreign Secretary to visit the country since 1953. He said his visit was to boost trade, support Cambodia's energy transition and "expand UK ASEAN cooperation."

The United States last week prematurely ended its flagship forest protection program citing the authorities' targeting of environmental activists among its concerns.

U.S. ambassador Patrick Murphy said he was "troubled" to hear about the activists' arrests.

"Documenting pollution is a public service, not terrorism. We urge authorities to be responsive to its citizens, not to silence them," he said on Twitter.

The Swedish and Australian delegations also released statements condemning the arrests.

"We do not believe that peaceful action of this kind is a threat to political or social stability, and we encourage the Royal Government of Cambodia to support Cambodia's young people to express their concerns on the issues they care about," wrote the Australian embassy on Facebook.

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