The Ministry of Interior has rebuffed a joint statement by roughly 70 NGOs demanding the release of three Mother Nature activists who have been charged with plotting and insulting the King.

In response to the June 23 joint statement, the ministry detailed the history of Mother Nature Cambodia, an environmental watchdog it dissolved on September 15, 2017, at the request of the organisation leader dated August 23, 2017.

The ministry said the activists – Sun Ratha, Yim Leanghy and Ly Chandaravuth – had taken refuge under the label of Mother Nature Cambodia to commit illegal activities.

The trio were arrested and sent to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on June 19 and a day later were charged with conspiracy and insulting the King.

“Mother Nature Cambodia does not exist [as an organisation] and no longer has the legal capacity to carry out its work in the Kingdom.

“However, with the support of Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spaniard who was expelled from Cambodia by the interior ministry on February 23, 2015, these three acted to ‘incite disunity and abuse the Constitution with the intention of causing social insecurity and affecting national stability, and thus the relevant authorities needed to take action in accordance with the laws in force.”

On June 22, a group of around 70 NGOs issued a joint statement denouncing actions taken by the authorities and municipal court against the three activists. They alleged that it was part of a “targeted” and outrageous persecution of frontline environmental defenders and grassroots activists by the government.

The civil society groups have called on the authorities to stop imprisoning activists and to start heeding the calls of youths who they said are on the frontlines documenting the risks Cambodia faces from natural resource exploitation and environmental degradation.

“Advocating for human rights and demanding that the authorities protect the environment are not crimes and jailing the country’s future generation of environmental defenders imperils us all,” they said.

The joint statement said Ratha and Chandaravuth were arrested on Phnom Penh’s riverside along with Seth Chhivlimeng, who was later released. It said the three were only documenting runoff from drainpipes along the river.

At the same time, Koh Thom district authorities in Kandal province summoned environmental activist Yim Leanghy for questioning and then detained him before transferring him to Phnom Penh.

The whereabouts of the four activists were not made public for at least 24 hours after their initial arrest, putting undue stress on their families and depriving them access to prompt legal counsel, the NGOs said.

Ratha, Chandaravuth and Leanghy were then brought to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and questioned by the prosecutor on June 19 and then charged on June 20 with conspiracy and insulting the King. The news of their detention, the NGOs said, was leaked to the media even before they were conveyed to their lawyers. They said this further undermined the activists’ right to a fair trial.

The NGOs requested that the authorities release the activists and drop all charges against them. “We, the undersigned community and civil society groups, demand the immediate release of the arrested environmental activists, the dropping of all charges, and a halt to the relentless repression and persecution of the environmental movement,” said their joint statement.

However, the interior ministry said that based on video evidence seized on May 14, Gonzalez-Davidson chaired an online meeting with the three activists where he used insulting words against the King and the head of the government.

The ministry further stated that the activist’s actions in the past were not done for the cause of loyalty to the protection of natural resources and the environment, but rather embedded with malicious tactics aimed at inciting unrest, mobilising forces to revolt and creating chaos in the country.

The ministry also cited the activists’ confessions to the judicial police as legal basis for the charges.

“They did act under the label of the Mother Nature environmental movement, but in truth they want an uprising to overthrow the government in a manner that is contrary to the principles of the multi-party liberal democracy enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution,” it said.