Three of four Mother Nature environmental activists arrested on Wednesday, had arrest warrants issued for them on the alleged charge of “plotting,” local authorities said, a charge used recently against former opposition officials.
On Friday, government mouthpiece Fresh News reported that National Police Spokesperson Chhay Kimkhouen that the Mother Nature activists were not engaging in environmental protection but were instead using foreign funds to topple the government. The outlet also published arrest warrants for Sun Ratha, 26, Yim Leanghy, 32, and Ly Chandaravuth, 22, but not for the fourth activist, Seth Chhivlimeng.
Human rights groups, who are following the arrests, said they were trying to find out the whereabouts of the activists, who were not produced in court as of Friday evening. There are reports that a fourth activist was arrested in Kandal province but their location was unknown as well.
National Police spokesperson Chhay Kimkhoeun told VOA Khmer on Thursday that three activists had been arrested using Phnom Penh Municipal Court arrest warrants, telling reporters that they should not be called “environmental activists.”
He said the activists were accused for allegedly “plotting”, and not their environmental activities.
“[Police] arrested three youths following Phnom Penh municipal court arrest warrant, accused of alleged plot. Now it is following the procedure of judicial police,” he said. “I can tell you only this as of now.”
Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Phlong Sophal could not be reached for comment on Thursday and San Sokseiha, Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesperson, said municipal police were not involved in the arrests.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights identified the three activists as Sun Ratha, Ly Chandaravuth, and Seth Chhivlimeng. A fourth environmental activist, Yim Leanghy, was arrested in Kandal province after being asked to visit his local police station, according to a statement from the rights group. The three environmental activists were arrested in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district at around 11am after they filmed sewage in the river near Royal Palace, CCHR added.
San Mala, an advocacy officer at the Cambodian Youth Network, said the arrests showed the risks faced by the country’s environmental activists.
“It is another bad picture and shows that environmental protectors are at risk,” he said.
In September 2020, three environmental activists, Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phoun Keo Reaksmey, all of whom are also members of Mother Nature, were arrested in Phnom Penh for planning to organize a one-woman march from Wat Phnom to the Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence to highlight concerns over the filling-in of Boeung Tamok. They were convicted last month and are serving between 18 to 20 months in prison.
Last week, U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy met with Interior Minister Sar Kheng and called for their release, while also raising the country’s abysmal record on protecting the environment. On Thursday, the U.S. pulled funding for the controversial Greening Prey Lang project that aims to protect the wildlife sanctuary. The U.S. said unbridled deforestation was a reason for the pull out, but that the funds would be redirected to local groups and NGOs.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of Licadho, a local rights group, said yesterday’s arrest happened right after the U.S. ambassador’s meeting, exemplifying how environmental activists are still in danger.
“If they are charged with alleged plotting, why were they not arrested previously? Why just now?” he said.