Cambodian court jails activists for plotting against government, insulting king

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) -A Cambodian court handed jail terms of up to eight years to 10 activists of environmental group Mother Nature, on charges of plotting against the government and insulting the king, the group's founder and a lawyer said on Tuesday.

The verdict comes amid growing concerns about freedom of expression in Cambodia under Prime Minister Hun Manet, who took power last year after the decades-long rule of his father, Hun Sen.

Five defendants who belonged to the group, which had called the case politically motivated, were arrested outside the court in Phnom Penh immediately after the verdict, as supporters dressed in white held placards reading, "Justice is Dead".

The group's lawyer, Sam Chomreun, confirmed the sentences for the 10 activists.

"This regime is not only disconnected from reality, it has also shown us how inhumane and cruel it can be towards those who dare to stand up for what is right," the group's founder, Alejandro Gonzales-Davidson, said of the court decision.

"However, this will not be in vain. Today, a new generation of activists has been created."

A Spanish national, Gonzales-Davidson told Reuters he was one of three activists held guilty of infringing Cambodia's lese majeste law and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Seven received six-year jail terms for plotting against the government, added Gonzales-Davidson, who was sentenced in absentia after having been deported from Cambodia almost a decade ago.

The government was not targeting its critics, but only those who broke the law, its spokesman, Pen Bona, said.

"I appeal to civil society groups to differentiate between criticisms and crimes," he added. "They are two different things."

The government has previously denied the trial was politically motivated, saying it did not prosecute critics, only those who commit crimes.

Mother Nature has long campaigned against environmental destruction in Cambodia, highlighting deforestation, illegal sand mining and corruption in development projects.

The accusations of plotting against the state had not been clarified in court, said Gonzales-Davidson, but three members were arrested after documenting suspected pollution run-off into the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh, the capital, in 2021.

The lese majeste charges relate to an internal Zoom meeting about political cartooning that was leaked.

The European Union expressed concern about increasing persecution and arrests of human rights defenders in Cambodia.

"We call for the upholding of democratic standards and respect for human rights, including the right to peaceful protest," its Cambodia mission added in a statement on Facebook.

Tuesday's verdict was devastating, said New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"It also sends an appalling message to Cambodia's youth that the government will side with special interests over the environment every chance it gets," it added in a statement.

The rights group had previously warned that Hun Manet, like his father, appeared intent on muzzling criticism of the government.

Under Hun Sen, the opposition was all but dismantled, independent media shuttered and dozens of activists jailed.

(Reporting by Phnom Penh bureau and Kate Lamb; Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Ed Davies and Clarence Fernandez)