Two Mother Nature activists arrested for taking photos of two suspected sand-bearing vessels are taken into the Koh Kong Provincial Court in September.
Two Mother Nature activists arrested for taking photos of two suspected sand-bearing vessels are taken into the Koh Kong Provincial Court in September. Photo supplied

CSOs call for release of detained Mother Nature activists

A group of more than 20 organisations yesterday called for the release of two Mother Nature activists who have been held in pretrial detention with no trial date scheduled for more than two months, allegedly in poor conditions.

In a statement released yesterday and signed by 22 local and international organisations, including Adhoc, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and Licadho, advocates “call for the immediate release of Hun Vannak and Doem Kundy . . . who have been wrongfully detained for over two months on spurious charges”.

The two activists were arrested on September 13 shortly after they filmed two alleged sand-bearing ships on the open ocean. They were charged with incitement and making unauthorised recordings of a person in “a private place”.

According to a Facebook post by Vannak, the vessels were about 4 kilometres from a Special Economic Zone belonging to tycoon and ruling Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat. If found guilty, the pair face up to two years in prison for incitement, and one year and a fine of up to $500 for unauthorised recording.

Mother Nature co-founder Alejandro Davidson-Gonzalez yesterday said that the pair’s detention was arbitrary. “[It is] indicative of the level of power that tycoons such as Ly Yong Phat have over state organs such as the judiciary, who are in cases like this nothing but tools of repression against those daring to speak the truth,” he said.

Mother Nature, which has documented and criticised sand dredging on the coast for years, was removed from the Ministry of Interior’s NGO registry on September 15 at the request of the organisation, a move Davidson-Gonzalez attributed to repeated harassment of the group’s members.

Vannak’s mother Ty Mary, 56, also called for the release of her son yesterday. “My son didn’t do anything wrong to deserve to be in jail,” she said.

Mary said she would meet Vannak today after having last seem him at the end of last month, and added that he had contracted skin diseases and a sore throat since being imprisoned.

Former Mother Nature activist Lim Kimsor said she and the families were only allowed to visit the pair twice a month now – on the 15th and 30th of each month.

Kimsor attributed the skin disease to overcrowding; she said 25 prisoners were crammed into a small cell with the toilet in the same room. “It’s very difficult for them,” she said.

Visits, meanwhile, were monitored by authorities, Kimsor said. “We cannot talk about anything important, because every time police surround us,” she said, adding that she would submit a petition to Prime Minister Hun Sen next week asking for their release.

Provincial prison chief Trey Buntha could not be reached yesterday. Davidson-Gonzales said Vannak and Kundy’s detention served to deter activism. “Their ongoing detention is nothing but a message to hundreds of other activists that they can be sent to jail, despite any lack of wrongdoing, if they poke their noses into the dirty businesses of the mafia-like groups that control Cambodia,” he said.

Court spokesman Un Sovan Theany said that judges were now questioning the activists, but that he did not know when their hearing would be.

Updated Wednesday 15 November, 7am.