A Cambodian court sentenced five environmental activists for up to 20 months in jail on Wednesday for incitement to commit crimes, over their attempts to organize a march to the prime minister's residence to protest the filling-in of a city lake.
The activists, all members of the conservation group Mother Nature, were jailed for between 18 and 20 months for incitement to commit a felony or disturb social order, court spokesman Y Rin said.
Two of the defendants were sentenced in absentia, one of them Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the group's Spanish founder, who was also charged with conspiracy to incite crimes.
Three Mother Nature members were arrested in September 2020 over the planned march to Prime Minister Hun Sen's house to show concern about the filling-in and development of Boeung Tamok lake, the largest lake in the capital Phnom Penh, according to the local human rights group Licadho.
Licadho said the trial was based largely on publicly available comments and material on Mother Nature's Facebook account, none of which constituted incitement.
Activists say environmental campaigners have been targeted in Cambodia for speaking up about issues like illegal logging and alleged collusion between politicians and businesses to exploit the country's natural resources.
Eerlynne Gil, deputy regional director for research at Amnesty International, called the verdict an "outrageous conviction" aimed at silencing human rights defenders who were trying to protect environmental resources.
"It serves as a threat to any young person who dares to stand up for human rights and environmental justice in Cambodia," Gil said.
Gonzalez-Davidson, who is not in Cambodia, said the verdict was "utterly unjust and shocking" and said Hun Sen's government was fighting to maintain its grip on power.
"The last tool they have now is terror, which includes sentencing completely innocent young Cambodians to lengthy jail sentences," Gonzalez-Davidson told Reuters in a text message.
U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy in a Tweet expressed deep concern.
"Speaking up to protect #Cambodia's environment, threatened by illegal logging & exploitation, is admirable," he said.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin rejected concerns about the conviction, and said: "This is normal as the opinions are based on individuals with political affiliations."