Award-Winning Mongolian Environmentalist Gets 21 Years for ‘Terrorism’

Harsh sentence is the latest blow for Mongolia's green movement, which is struggling to contain environmental damage from mining

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Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Trucks carry coal along a paved road leading to the border with China in the South Gobi Desert, Mongolia, on June 6, 2013

Mongolian environmental activist Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, who was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2007 for his campaign to protect water sources from mining pollution, was sentenced on Jan. 21 together with four associates to 21 years in prison for “acts of terrorism.”

Munkhbayar was arrested on Sept. 16 when attending a protest during which a firearm was discharged. Security officials also allegedly found an explosive device in a nearby building.

While not condoning violence, the Goldman Prize states that “it is widely understood that the shot was not fired on purpose and nobody was injured.”

Media reports referenced by Asia Correspondent said that Munkhbayar had brought a gun and inactive grenades to the protest.

The website spoke to Enkhbat Toochog of the U.S.-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, who said: “Munkhbayar’s actions highlighted the desperation of helpless Mongolian pastoralists, who had no choice but to resort to an unconventional approach to defend their land, rights and way of life after exhausting all other means.”

Mongolia has some of the world’s largest undeveloped mineral reserves, including gold, copper, coal and uranium. Thanks to efforts by Munkhbayar and the alliance of environmentalists that he set up, mining companies agreed to limit their pollution of rivers as well as the displacement of local herders.

However, following an economic downturn and a change of government in 2012, the advances Munkhbayar managed to push through have been rolled back. In September, the government agreed to a partnership with French company Areva to revive uranium exploration in the Gobi Desert, which activists claim has led to death and deformities among livestock.

[Asia Correspondent, Rivers Without Boundaries, Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center]