Thun Rotha, who was arrested last year along with his two environmental activists, has barely seen a 14-month-old baby.
“Our son was arrested when he was six months old,” Roth’s wife Pat Raksmey told Al Jazeera.
“It’s the dirt campaign of the powerful. He hasn’t pushed anyone. He questions those in power. ”
Rotha is one of three members of the environmental NGO Mother Nature, who was arrested in 2020 after organizing a march on the home of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to express concern about the plan to fill and develop Lake Boeung Tamok in Phnom Penh. area.
Rotha, 29, was sentenced to 20 months in prison last week for “committing a crime or disturbing a social order” and fined $ 1,000 by his two female colleagues, 22-year-old Long Kunthea and 19-year-old. Former Phuong Keo Raksmey was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined the same for the charge. The conditions take into account the time already given.
The United Nations and local and international NGOs have condemned their treatment and called on the government to release the three from prison immediately and unconditionally.
UN Special Rapporteur on the Status of Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, described the activists’ punishment as “shameful.”
“It strengthens the government’s sustainable policy of reducing civic space and opposing voices,” he said.
“The ruling shows which issue and does not want to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms that the court has voluntarily accepted by the government,” he added.
“I am concerned about the prosecution models against human rights defenders in Cambodia since July 2020.”
Defending the ‘common good’
Two other activists were also convicted in absentia on the same charge that he ordered the court’s arrest.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson of Spain and the founder of Mother Nature, who was deported from the country in 2015, was sentenced to 20 months in prison, Chea Kunthini, who is in hiding, sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined $ 1,000.
“These young people were arrested for trying to protect the largest lake in Phnom Penh and keep it for present and future generations,” said Naly Pilorge, director of LICADHO, Cambodia’s leading human rights NGO, which has provided legal support to activists. “These environmental advocates have suffered too much time and we call on the authorities to release people from overcrowded prisons so they can reunite with their families and communities.”
Boeung Tamok covers about 3,000 hectares (7,413 hectares) in the Cambodian capital and plays an important role in flood protection, as well as income or food for hundreds of families.
In recent years, however, the government has transferred more than 500 hectares (1,236 hectares) of the lake to public institutions and private companies – some with political ties – to develop, according to sub-decrees cited by the local Voice of Democracy media.
Mother Nature’s arrests are part of the government’s ongoing crackdown on all forms of disagreement, from protest to activism and formal opposition policies. The government has accused some protesters and members of the opposition of trying to overthrow the government by encouraging a “color revolution”.
Since July last year, the UN and LICADHO have documented the arrest of at least 24 human rights activists and say that while some have been released, more than 10 have been arrested. Among those arrested are monks, rappers, a union leader and opposition political members who have been critical of the government.
Gonzalez-Davidson founded Mother Nature in 2013 to help local communities protect their lands and organize them in a peaceful way to expose the wrongs. The first campaign was carried out against a planned hydroelectric dam in the western Areng Valley of the country.
He says he and his team were concerned about safety from the start, but they won’t give up.
“After at least partially defending for so many years, he is more courageous and resilient, and even more determined to fight for a better country, with little left of the country’s natural resources that is truly protected, not destroyed. For the benefit of a small elite,” he told Al Jazeera. and saying the conviction is “a reaction to those who are willing to defend the common good.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asian Division of Human Rights Watch, said members of Mother Nature and other activists were arrested for reporting wrongdoing by officials.
“The government considers Mother Nature a troubling whistleblower who calls for government corruption and misconduct, especially in projects with chubby capitalists that destroy the environment and the lives of its people,” he said.
“Mother Nature advocates for human rights and organizes communities to proclaim their opposition to harmful projects, and the government does not want to deal with this kind of pressure. So they go after Mother Nature because they think that if they arrest NGO activists, the affected citizens will not be brave enough to continue their resistance. ”
Since 2003, developers have filled more than 60 percent of the lakes in Phnom Penh and more than 40 percent of the major wetlands, according to Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, a Cambodian rights group.
The most famous 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 pumped into the sand.
Opposition to the plan led to regular protests. Dozens of community leaders in Beoung Kak, including well-known activist Tep Vanny, have been arrested and jailed several times for protesting their rights.
Pradeep Wagle, a representative of the Cambodian office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, which monitors and documents Cambodian arrests and human rights abuses, said her office is aware of 17 people, including six women with human rights and community ties. -based organizations have been charged with criminal offenses since 2020.
He noted that international human rights rules and standards are binding on Cambodia and that “human rights work is not in itself and would not constitute a criminal offense.”
“Therefore, we urge the government to work hard to prevent people from being prosecuted for human rights-related work. We also urge the government to ensure that the right to fair and impartial justice is respected at all times.”
Chin Malin, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice and the Cambodian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), said the criticism was a political attack on the government and that the courts were independent.
“The trial is a court decision,” Malin said. “There are reasons and facts to denounce them.”
“To support all of these entrepreneurs [they] they must comply with the court proceedings, stating that they must give testimony and evidence in order to be acquitted
“Criticism and political statements have no effect on the court and are not a legal way to protect the accused.”
Neth Pheaktra, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Environment, declined to comment.
“Ministry [environment] he has no comment on the court’s decision, ”he said.
Pat Raksmey and her husband have long awaited the arrest given their sensitivity to Cambodian environmental activism.
Gonzalez-Davidson was expelled because the government had to abandon its hydropower plans in the Areng Valley in the face of fierce opposition.
Other activists have suffered fear, or worse. Leng Ouch, who received the Goldman Award for revealing illegal cuts, has been arrested and detained at least twice in many years.
Chut Wutty, another prominent activist, was shot dead by military police in 2012 while investigating the illegal timber trade.
Raksmey said her husband’s conviction was “very unfair.”
“They are not guilty,” he said, asking for his release. “Not only my husband, but also all the young people who work to take care of the environment.
“These young people should be praised and in such cases they should receive greetings that are not unjustly condemned.”
While his family’s vision appears bleak, Raksmey says he would have no hesitation in helping his son if he had to decide to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“If my son loves environmental work in the future, then I will leave and encourage him,” she said. “We know we can’t live without nature, so caring for the environment is an admirable job.”