A senior government spokesman has dismissed statements from several Western governments and NGOs which expressed “concerns” about the lengthy prison sentences handed down to ten activists from environmental watchdog Mother Nature Cambodia on June 2.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced each of the activists to prison terms of six to eight years, as well as fines, after they were found guilty of several charges, including plotting to overthrow the government and insulting King Norodom Sihamoni and former Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2021.

The presiding judge noted that in May 2021, the suspects participated in a Zoom call with the group’s Spanish co-founder, Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, who insulted the King, as well as Hun Sen.

She added that the other accused were involved in the slurs and plotted to overthrow the government.

“The European Union and its member states Belgium, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden are deeply concerned about the increasing persecution and arrests of human rights defenders in Cambodia,” said a June 2 statement, released by the EU in Cambodia.

“The latest verdict on Mother Nature Cambodian environmental activists is a matter of concern. We call for the upholding of democratic standards and respect for human rights, including the right to peaceful protest,” it added.

A statement from the Australian embassy in Cambodia expressed a similar sentiment, noting that Australia is “seriously concerned” about the sentencing.

“All Cambodians should be able to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of opinion, without the fear of arrest and prosecution,” it said.

“Today’s decision is another crushing blow to Cambodia’s civil society. Mother Nature Cambodia is a renowned activist group that has brought attention to environmental degradation fuelled by long-standing corruption in the country,” claimed Montse Ferrer, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for Research.

“Instead of listening to young leaders at the forefront of the environmental movement, the Cambodian government has chosen to jail those that dare to speak out,” she added.

Government spokesman Pen Bona spoke to The Post on July 3. He explained that the court proceedings were part of the same process that could be observed in any other state which respects the rule of law.

“I want to stress that here in Cambodia many people express their opinions or offer criticisms. This can be seen in both conventional and social media. Those who offer constructive criticism or commentary on social issues do not face any legal action. Legal action is only taken against those who violate Cambodian law,” he said.

“I also want to clarify that it is only the independent judiciary that has the power to decide on sentencing and other court matters,” he added.

Bona suggested that those who are commenting should not let their own sentiments cloud this fact. He urged critics to understand the difference between exercising freedom of speech and violating the law.

He noted that it appeared that some people could not separate the two, creating confusion in society.

“I request that NGOs, and whoever else wishes to see democracy flourish in Cambodia, teach people – especially those they regard as environment or political activists – about their freedoms, rights and responsibilities under the Cambodian Constitution, as well as relevant domestic and international laws and conventions.

“The law does not just guarantee rights and freedoms, it also defines limits when they affect the rights of other people, public order or national security. It is the same in all countries around the world,” he said.

Five of the defendants were arrested outside the court, while the rest remain convicted in absentia.

Those who were absent included four Cambodians and Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported in 2015 and barred from ever returning.

The five who were arrested marched to the court with supporters. They were dressed in the traditional white clothing which is worn at funerals in Cambodia, which they claimed represented the “death of justice” in the Kingdom.

“It is astounding that Cambodian authorities are convicting youth activists who are advocating for clean water in Phnom Penh, protecting mangrove forests in Koh Kong and warning against the privatisation of land in protected areas and presenting it as an attack against the state,” said a statement by Cambodian human rights group Licadho.

The group was awarded Sweden’s 2023 Right Livelihood award for its activism but its members could not travel to Stockholm to receive the award because of the charges against them. Previous winners of the award include Edward Snowden and Greta Thunberg.

Three of the activists who were convicted on June 2 were arrested in 2020. In May 2021, they were sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison on charges of incitement related to environmental issues.

Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights at the time, issued a statement two days after the sentencing, calling for the immediate release of the prisoners.

“I am saddened to learn that three human rights defenders from Mother Nature Cambodia have been sentenced to 18 to 20 months in prison. Protecting the environment peacefully is not a crime," she said.

Her comments were denounced by the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia to the UN Office in Geneva, who called her statement false and misleading.

The mission claimed that, unfortunately, Lawlor seemed to be advocating the work of an unlawful organisation that committed crimes in the name of environmentalism.

“Her failure to recognise that rights come with responsibilities emboldens those who break the law, spread fake news and incite violence and social division – all of which could potentially plunge Cambodia into chaos,” it said.

It described Lawlor’s remarks as inappropriate and an interference in the national judicial system of a sovereign state, saying the demand for the government to arbitrarily release anyone was tantamount to an attack on the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary.

The five prisoners who were arrested on July 2 were transferred to five separate provincial prisons, with family members telling local media outlets that this would cause emotional hardship for the convicted activists and their families.

Phnom Penh Municipal police spokesperson Sam Vichheka informed media outlets that the five were transferred to prison facilities in Kampong Speu, Kandal, Pursat, Preah Vihear and Tboung Khmum provinces.

“This was the decision of the court, so police officials are implementing them,” he said.

Additional reporting by Niem Chheng