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Defiant activist ejected

Environmental activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson
A Cambodian policeman speaks to outspoken environmental activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson during his arrest at a restaurant in Phnom Penh yesterday. AFP

Defiant activist ejected

Outspoken environmental activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson was deported from Cambodia last night after being detained along with a colleague from his conservation group.

Gonzalez-Davidson and his Mother Nature co-founder San Mala were detained without charge by immigration officials at around 1:15pm in the riverside area of Phnom Penh.

General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, suggested the ministry had shown restraint in not bringing criminal charges against the activist.

“We are not detaining him [for long], but just to force him out of the Kingdom. We have the right to send him to court and imprison him from one to three months, but we don’t do that,” he said.

A senior immigration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed Gonzalez-Davidson was scheduled to go to Bangkok on an 8:35pm Thai Airways flight. In a text message from the plane, Gonzalez-Davidson said he was bound for his native Spain.

Mala was released from detention shortly before 6pm.

An immigration official, who asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media, said that the order to deport the conservation campaigner had come directly from Prime Minister Hun Sen following a speech he made yesterday morning.

“Hun Sen made the direct order to arrest Alex after his speech,” the official said.

Wan-Hea Lee, country director of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said a UN worker had “learned that there [were] no charges against either [Gonzalez-Davidson or Mala]”.

Mother Nature said in a press release yesterday that “the authorities may have overstepped the law and detained Alex without proper cause”.

“Today, we have heard reports from communities in the Areng Valley . . . that a car with four Chinese workers supported by police and military has entered the valley. We will be doing everything we can to support the communities to halt what appears to be a resumption of the work,” the group added.

People protest the deportation of Alex Gonzalez-Davidson
People protest the deportation of Alex Gonzalez-Davidson yesterday evening at the Department of Immigration in Phnom Penh. Vireak Mai

Hun Sen earlier in the day warned the defiant activist to leave Cambodia voluntarily or face being blacklisted from the country. Gonzalez-Davidson had vowed to remain in Cambodia despite the fact that his visa expired on Friday.

Speaking at a graduation in Phnom Penh yesterday, the premier also warned NGOs not to rally behind the embattled environmentalist, lest they face problems of their own.

“Regarding Alex [Gonzalez-Davidson], let the Ministry of Interior take measures. It’s not just foreigners, it’s also Khmers that will be sentenced, and other NGOs shouldn’t express much,” Hun Sen said.

“We’ll let him stay until his visa is invalid. So you should leave first then ask for a new visa, it doesn’t matter. [You] don’t need to make this situation get worse. If we deport you, it means [you’re] on the blacklist, that’s it.”

Gonzalez-Davidson had planned to stay for at least 37 days after his visa expired and pay the related fines, but had vowed to remain in Cambodia until he was forced to leave.

A staunch advocate of environmental causes, particularly that of the threatened Areng Valley, he had previously told the Post he was certain that if he left the country to obtain a new visa, the government would not let him back in. His situation has attracted huge support on social media, where the fluent Khmer-speaking activist has become something of celebrity.

Gonzalez-Davidson was unavailable to comment, but Mala, his NGO’s co-founder, told the Post yesterday morning that support for his colleague in the Cambodian community was absolute. “Hun Sen is going against what the Khmer people want, as we know 100 per cent of Khmers want Alex to stay. [Hun Sen’s actions are] opposite to Khmer people,” he said, pointing out that Alex has grown to be considered “Khmer” by his supporters.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, said it would be “unethical” for engineering giant Sinohydro, which is overseeing construction of the Cheay Areng dam, to proceed with feasibility studies “given the strong-arm tactics and intimidation being used by the . . . government against activists working to protect the Areng Valley”.

In a text message to supporters before his deportation, Gonzalez-Davidson remained defiant. “Stay strong, the battle is yours to be won. For nature, our life,” he wrote.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY GRIFF TAPPER

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