Cambodia’s representatives to the UN have publically deplored comments made by a UN human rights official concerning the sentencing of environmental activists by Cambodian courts, describing them as “baseless and misleading”.

On July 2, The Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced ten environmental activists to prison terms of six to eight years on charges of conspiracy and insulting King Norodom Sihamoni.

UN Human Rights spokesperson Thameen Al-Kheetan expressed grave concerns over their conviction.

“Our monitoring of the proceedings raises concerns that many aspects of the trial procedure may not have complied with international human rights standards binding on Cambodia.

“The increasing use by Cambodian authorities of lese majeste and other articles of Cambodia’s criminal code to penalise the exercise of human rights is deeply worrying,” he said, in a July 2 media statement. 

Al-Kheetan called for the case to be reviewed on appeal in line with international human rights law, while also urging the authorities to review the charges brought against the environmental activists.

 “We call on Cambodia to hold broad-based public consultations to amend relevant articles of the Cambodian Criminal Code to bring them into conformity with international human rights law. We are ready to engage with the government on this process,” he said. 

The Permanent Mission of Cambodia to the UN Office and other International Organizations in Geneva, Switzerland, said in a July 10 press statement that the claim that the proceedings lacked compliance with international human rights standards is baseless, and exposed Al-Kheetan’s limited insight of or deliberate refusal to comprehend the court procedures in the Kingdom. 

“These environmental activists were charged not because they exercised their rights and freedoms, but for plotting against the government and insulting the King which was an offense when committed in Cambodia from 2012 until 2021, and punishable under Articles 437 and 453 of the Criminal Code of Cambodia. 

“The defendants had full opportunity to be heard, including the right to counsel, and to disprove the charges as part of the right to a fair trial and due process,” it said. 

The statement said the call for “the case to be reviewed” or “to review the charges” is highly prejudiced against the integrity of the Cambodian judiciary and its decision-making processes. It added that the court’s decision was based on concrete evidence and strictly adhered to due process and the principles of legality. 

The statement deemed the call for an amendment of the relevant articles of the Criminal Code as misleading, noting that the Criminal Code was crafted by Western legal experts with wide consultation by stakeholders to ensure that the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution and international human rights conventions to which Cambodia is a State party are protected, and lawbreakers are duly liable for their criminal misconduct. 

It added that this does not concern the provisions of the Criminal Code.