A Cambodian court has charged four environmental activists with insulting the country’s king and conspiracy to plot, a prosecutor said on Monday, following the arrest of three of them last week as they documented waste discharge into a Phnom Penh city river.
Plang Sophal, deputy prosecutor of Phnom Penh Municipal Court, confirmed the charges in a text message but did not specify how the activists, from the group Mother Nature, had broken the laws.
“The evidence collected by the police was an insult to the king,” he told Reuters, without elaborating.
Though filed often in Thailand, charges of lese majeste, or insulting the monarchy, are rare in Cambodia.
The four face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of plotting and up to five years in jail for royal insults.
Mother Nature’s Spanish founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson is not in Cambodia and was charged in absentia. He told Reuters the charges were “completely fabricated” and reflected government paranoia about its own citizens.
“As for the charges against me, I see them as further recognition that the regime sees my peaceful activism as a threat,” he said in a text.
Mother Nature’s Sun Ratha, 26, Ly Chandaravuth, 22, and Yim Leanghy, 32, were detained on June 16 while documenting runoff into the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh, Cambodian human rights monitors Licadho said.
“The Cambodian government has relentlessly targeted Mother Nature Cambodia,” said Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s director. “This marks an escalation with the outrageous charges of plotting.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the government was applying the law and the defendants should “find a good lawyer to challenge this issue in the courtroom instead of fabricating the news”.
The US last week scrapped a wildlife conservation programme with Cambodia for what it said was a failure to tackle logging and intimidation of environmentalists.
The US embassy in Phnom Penh said in a statement that it had invested more than US$100 million to combat deforestation and despite some progress, high rates of illegal logging had continued in the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary.
It accused the Cambodian authorities of not adequately prosecuting wildlife crimes or stopping illicit activities, the Straits Times reported.
“In addition, the government continues to silence and target local communities and their civil society partners who are justifiably concerned about losing their natural resources,” the US statement said.
In February, the authorities detained and later released environmental activists protesting inside the sanctuary.
“As a result of these unresolved concerns, the US is ending assistance to government entities under the Usaid Greening Prey Lang project,” the embassy said, adding that aid will instead be redirected to support civil society, private sector and local efforts.