A Cambodian court has charged four environmental advocates with insulting the king and plotting against the government, an official said on Monday, after three of them were arrested for documenting waste run-off into a river.
Use of royal defamation laws in Cambodia is a relatively new phenomenon, with the legislation only enacted in 2018.
The three environmentalists — Sun Ratha, Ly Chandaravuth and Yim Leanghy of advocacy group Mother Nature — were on Wednesday arrested for documenting the draining of waste into Phnom Penh’s Tonle Sap River.
Over the weekend, they were “charged with conspiracy to plot and for insulting the king,” Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Plang Sophal said by text message on Monday.
Also charged was Mother Nature cofounder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish environmentalist who was deported from Cambodia in 2015 after he criticized the government’s plans for a controversial dam.
Sophal did not elaborate on why the environmentalists were hit with those particular charges.
While Cambodia has a constitutional monarch, King Norodom Sihamoni, it is ruled by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-serving leader.
In 2018, the enactment of the lese majeste laws triggered alarm from rights groups, who said that they could be used to target dissent.
If sentenced, the Mother Nature environmentalists face a maximum penalty of five years in prison for insulting the king, as well as 10 years behind bars for the conspiracy charge.
US Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy said he was “very troubled” to hear about the arrests.
“Documenting pollution is a public service, not terrorism,” Murphy wrote on Twitter on Monday. “We urge authorities to be responsive to its citizens, not to silence them.”
Last week, the US embassy condemned the “worsening” situation in Cambodia and announced that it was redirecting millions in funds from government entities to local non-governmental organizations.
Mother Nature has faced a raft of legal troubles from Cambodian authorities.
Last month, three environmental campaigners affiliated with the group were sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison for organizing a peaceful march to protest against a massive lake in the capital being filled with sand.
The tussle over Cambodia’s environment and resources has long been a contentious issue in the kingdom, with environmentalists threatened, arrested and even killed in the past decade.
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