Three prominent civil society members have been charged with “breach of trust” for allegedly misappropriating funds raised for slain political activist Kem Ley’s funeral, despite the fact that nobody in Ley’s family filed a complaint.

“Kuch Kimlong, municipal deputy prosecutor, decided to charge But Buntenh, 37, Pa Nguon Teang, 45, and Moeun Tola, 43, with ‘breach of trust’,” reads the Phnom Penh Municipal Court document, dated January 4, but made public on government mouthpiece Fresh News today.

The document also calls for the three to be immediately placed in pre-trial detention.

The charges carry a punishment of one to three years in prison, and a fine of 2 million to 6 million riel (about $500-$1,500).

Activist monk Buntenh, independent media advocate and founder of Cambodian Center for Independent Media Nguon Teang and labour rights campaigner Tola have all been frequent critics of the government. They were accused of misappropriating funds by Cambodian Youth Party head Pich Sros, who has been accused of acting as a proxy for the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Sros also filed an initial complaint against the Cambodia National Rescue Party for alleged treasonous activity, as well as against jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha. The complaints filed against the CNRP ultimately led to its dissolution at the hands of the Supreme Court.

Sros’s complaint against the three activists came after Buntenh pointed out that Sros himself had spent $2,300 on costs for a fundraiser that earned a mere $750 for a memorial stupa for Ley, who was gunned down in broad daylight in an assassination widely seen as politically motivated.

Sros has never disputed Buntenh’s account, but maintains the fundraiser’s failure was an honest one.

While Buntenh and Nguon Teang are both abroad, Buntenh today said he was worried about Tola, whom he believed was still in Cambodia. “He’s in danger,” he said. “In Cambodia now, there is no law.”

However, a police official at the Phnom Penh International Airport who requested anonymity said Tola left the country for Bangkok on Tuesday.

Tola could not be immediately reached for comment, but in the past has said that while he and the others had a role in planning Ley’s memorial, it was the family that was in charge of managing the funds.

Buntenh also dismissed the accusations against him and the others. “The court created this case . . . and then they tried to prosecute us. We are not accepting this type of created case,” he said, adding that it was “unfair” and “a game”.

“They are trying to make a kind of trouble, and they try to shut down independent groups in the country,” said Buntenh, who is head of the Independent Monk’s Network for Social Justice.

Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy for human rights group Licadho, said that the organisation was “shocked at the charges”.

“There seems to be no indication these three individuals were involved in collecting or managing funeral funds,” she said.

Sros, however, claimed he had inside information from Ley’s brother, Rithisith, that a crime was committed.

“I got the information from Kem Ley’s brother that this committee committed a crime. I feel that I applaud the effort of the court for this case,” he said today.

However, Ley’s sister-in-law, Bou Imolyta, rejected the accusation, saying Buntenh and the others had never managed the money, and that Sros had no right to file the complaint.

“The monk did not hold that money, and Pich Sros has no right to file a complaint at all. He is not the relative of the family and is not involved with the family even a bit. The ones who handled the budget were [Ley’s] wife and his mother,” she said.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the charge was an example of “politically motivated legal harassment” indicating that the government is “still gunning for various NGO people who have caused them trouble in the past”.

“This is all about Pich Sros trying to earn a reward from the CPP, and if the courts allow themselves to be used in this way then they are worse than everyone thought. The only way justice will be served is if Pich Sros is prosecuted for filing a false case and wasting the court’s time,” he added.

Updated 7:01am, Friday 19 January 2018