Mother Nature activists in Cambodia refuse to attend trial

Supporters were barred from attending, so in protest they burned incense and meditated outside the courtroom.
By RFA Khmer
2024.06.05
Mother Nature activists in Cambodia refuse to attend trial A group of Cambodian environmental activists pray near barricades blocking a street to Phnom Penh municipal court in Phnom Penh on June 5, 2024.
(Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Five activists from environmental group Mother Nature refused to attend a hearing at Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday after authorities blocked supporters and journalists from attending the proceeding.

The activists are facing charges that they insulted Cambodia’s king and plotted to overthrow the government.

As they had for a previous hearing, they wore white clothes to protest what they call an unfair Cambodian justice system, and also burned incense in front of the court and later meditated under a heavy rain.

They are among 10 activists charged in a case that covers several instances of activism, including the 2021 filming of sewage draining into the Tonle Sap river in front of Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace. Seven of the 10 activists were a part of Mother Nature.

One of the defendants, Ly Chandaravuth, told reporters outside the court that members of the public should be able to attend and monitor the trial.

“Don’t claim you are independent,” he said of the court. “Don’t claim you are independent if you won’t have a public trial.”

Court officials announced earlier on Tuesday that journalists would need to pre-register with authorities if they wanted to go inside the courtroom. 

Limiting access to the courtroom is part of Deputy Prosecutor Seng Heang’s effort to rush the case toward a verdict, Ly Chandaravuth said.

ENG_KHM_ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISTS_06052024.2.jpg
A group of Cambodian environmental activists sit near barricades blocking a street to Phnom Penh municipal court in Phnom Penh on June 5, 2024. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Ly Chandaravuth and the other four activists who refused to attend Wednesday’s hearing are out on bail in the case. 

The other five defendants in the case are either in hiding or live outside of the country and are being tried in absentia, including the group’s Khmer-speaking founder, Spanish environmentalist Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported from Cambodia in 2015.

Police officer’s testimony

The five activists outside the court building on Wednesday appeared to be trying to disrupt the proceedings with their absence and their behavior, Seng Heang said.

Inside the courtroom, judicial police officer Chin Vannak testified that Gonzalez-Davidson and the Mother Nature movement have used the issue of protecting Cambodia’s forestland as a pretext for inciting people to overthrow the government.

Defendants’ lawyer Sam Chamroeun said the allegations made by the judicial police officer didn’t contain any specific evidence that Mother Nature wanted to overthrow the government.

Yi Soksan, who monitored the hearing for human rights group Adhoc, said a judicial police report was presented as evidence but also didn’t have a specific basis for indicting Mother Nature activists. 

The judicial police officers also didn’t present any concrete evidence in response to questions from defense lawyers, he said.

Presiding Judge Ouk Reth Kunthea scheduled the next hearing for June 11.

Translated by Yun Samean. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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