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Environmentalists detained by police for conducting their weekly rally – Radio Free Asia

Cambodian authorities detained and released 13 members of the Mother Nature environmental activist group on Sunday for holding a rally to raise awareness about the country’s largest island of Koh Kong Krao.

Described by environmental activists as “untouched,” the 103 square km (about 40 square miles) island is known for its beauty and abundant natural resources, including forests, white sandy beaches, clean sea water, waterfalls and plentiful wildlife.

In June 2023 Mongbay reported that Cambodia’s military facilitates logging on Koh Kong Krau and other nearby islands. 

In 2020, RFA reported that an ally of then-Prime Minister Hun Sen had secured permission to develop parts of the island. This was contrary to statements by the Ministry of Environment that it had been sending experts to study including Koh Kong Krau as a marine national park since 2016, and it expected it would have national park status by 2021.

Sunday’s detention and interrogations came after the group members dressed in T-shirts advocating the protection of Koh Kong Krau and exercised together on the banks of the Chaktomuk river and discussed the issue of Koh Kong Krao and held banners that read “Sunday for Koh Kong Krao.”

Once in custody, the police asked the activists to write their biographies including any instances of past crimes. Authorities then asked them to provide further answers on the purpose of the riverside rally and released them in the evening of the same day. 

Mean Mean Lisa, who was among the detainees, told RFA Khmer that the members had gathered on Sunday to exercise together and discuss the island. She said the authorities persecute young people who strive to protect the environment and natural resources.

“We take Sundays to discuss Koh Kong Krau every week,” she said. “Secondly, we want to encourage young people from all walks of life and the public to get involved in protecting the environment and natural resources. Third, we want the ministry to honor its promise to make Koh Kong Krau a marine national park.”

Am Sam Ath, the director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, told RFA that the activities of the Mother Nature group, are important to raise awareness about protecting natural resources and they benefit the nation as a whole. 

He added that these activities should be encouraged because they are fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens and not crimes.

“If the authorities take them for questioning, it is a threat to intimidate young people to participate in activities to protect natural resources, the environment, as well as to participate in public to develop a good society,” he said.

Among the detainees was German national Jannik Gaul, who was a friend of one of Mother Nature members. 

At the police office, Gaul was questioned in an isolated room alone. After his release, Gaul texted to the Mother Nature group that the police made him speak in front of a video camera saying that members of Mother Nature lied to him to join an illegal demonstration.

His phone was taken for a couple of hours . He also said the immigration police officer wants him to leave Cambodia. 

“They want me to go back on my own, they had no official papers or charges to send me out of the country,” he said in a text message to Mother Nature. “I had to promise on camera to leave the country … as soon as possible. I do not know how and if they can or will use this.”

Gaul said that the police told him they were afraid of international backlash that an official deportation might cause, and that he hoped he could finish his volunteering work, which is scheduled to end in August. 

The police also released a statement Sunday night saying that Gaul admitted his mistake. Police accused Mother Nature of acting illegally, endangering security and public order.

In a later text message, Gaul told the group that he would leave Cambodia on Wednesday and asked them not to take any action until he was out of the country.

Translated by Sokry Sum. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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