Updated: June 09, 2021 09:25 AM GMT
The Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia, is under threat in Cambodia from development. (Photo: AFP)
The United States’ ambassador to Cambodia has expressed “strong concerns” about prison sentences meted out to peaceful environmental activists and called for their release.
“Speaking up to protect Cambodia’s fragile environment — threatened by illegal logging and commercial exploitation — is admirable,” said Patrick Murphy, according to a report by the government-friendly Khmer Times.
“We urge their release because freedom of expression is a fundamental human right guaranteed by the Cambodian constitution. Respecting fundamental freedoms can help to ensure a peaceful, prosperous, sovereign and democratic future for Cambodia.,”
Murphy had met with Interior Minister Sar Kheng to discuss cooperation, the implementation of UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, and justice for victims of crime including efforts to combat human trafficking.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court recently sentenced three environmental activists from Mother Nature to 18-20 months in prison for seeking to protest government plans to fill and privatize a major lake in the capital.
All three are recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.
This clearly violates the activists’ right to freedom of expression and constitutes an attack on all human rights defenders in Cambodia
“This outrageous conviction is a blatant attempt to silence these young human rights defenders in retaliation for their peaceful work to protect Cambodia’s natural resources,” said Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for research.
“This clearly violates the activists’ right to freedom of expression and constitutes an attack on all human rights defenders in Cambodia.”
Murphy also reaffirmed his country’s commitment to combating human trafficking, which he said affects people in every country, and encouraged stronger efforts to prosecute traffickers, protect victims and prevent future crimes.
Interior Ministry spokesman Phat Sophanith told the Khmer Times that “both parties agreed to cooperate to make positive progress against human trafficking.”
According to the US embassy’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report: Cambodia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation had reported repatriating and providing limited services to 32,235 Cambodians returning from nine countries, mostly from Thailand.
Human traffickers have been forced to change their business model amid the Covid-19 pandemic, raising alarm among rights activists.
That includes women trafficked into China for marriage and debt bondage, an issue exacerbated by the pandemic forcing many Cambodians to seek illegal work in the manufacturing, fishing and industries abroad.
Cambodia was ranked as a second-tier country on the US Watch List in each of the past two years. The US Department of State says such a ranking shows that the Cambodian government had not fully met minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking.
Late last year, the US sanctioned notorious Macau criminal figure Wan Kuok-koi under the Global Magnitsky Act. Also known as “Broken Tooth,” he is linked to Cambodia through his World Hongmen History and Culture Association in Phnom Penh.
The sanctions were imposed due to his activities in drug trafficking, illegal gambling and human trafficking.