Court Criticized After Sonando Bail Denial

Criticism of the Court of Appeal’s decision Friday to deny bail to independent radio station owner Mam Sonando continued over the weekend with human rights groups questioning the legal reasoning behind the denial, and pointing to double standards in the courts.

“He is an old person and he will not escape,” said Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, dismissing the Appeal Court claim that Mr. Sonando posed a threat to witnesses and public order.

“There was no incidence of threats to the witnesses, so there’s no sign of threats,” Mr. Virak said.

Mr. Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in jail in October on charges of fomenting a so-called rural insurrection. Supporters of the radio station owner say the charges were politically motivated and a thinly veiled attempt by the government to silence one of the only critical voices in domestic broadcast media, which is dominated by pro-ruling party TV and radio channels.

The claims of insurrection date back to May when authorities launched a massive operation to evict hundreds of families in Kratie province, shooting a 14-year-old girl in the process. Human rights groups have condemned the government’s claim that the villagers were part of a secessionist movement, calling such statements an excuse to evict the families on behalf of a rubber plantation company.

In denying Mr. Sonando’s bail request, the judges said they feared the 72-year-old would pressure witnesses and cause unspecified “public disorder.” Prosecutors also argued that Mr. Sonando, who holds dual French and Cambodian citizenship, posed a flight risk.

Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, said the decision made little sense given that Mr. Sonando returned to Cambodia in July after he was charged specifically to face down the allegations against him, which he unequivocally denies.

“It’s been clear to us from the start that Mr. Sonando came back to the country on his own free will, so there’s absolutely no risk he would leave the country again,” she said.

Ms. Pilorge said the denial of bail also lacked consistency with some of the court system’s other recent decisions, noting the case of the former Bavet City governor, Chhouk Bundith, who was charged months ago with shooting three female factory workers but has never been detained and has yet to stand trial. “There has been no arrest and no pretrial detention” of Mr. Bundith, Ms. Pilorge said. “[Mr. Sonando] decided to come back to Cambodia even though he knew he would face these charges because he wanted to prove he was innocent,” she said.

Sok Sam Oeun of the Cambodian Defenders Project, another free legal-aid organization, said the Appeal Court judge should have offered some proof to back up his claim that Mr. Sonando posed a threat.

“If he [the judge] said like that, he must have evidence…not only fear,” said Mr. Sam Oeun, who defended Mr. Sonando during his Municipal Court trial in September.

“The Cambodian court is like that—not evidence, only fear.”

On Friday, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee and rights group Adhoc also denounced the court’s decision to deny Mr. Sonando bail.

Mr. Sonando’s current lawyer, Sa Sovan, filed an appeal of the bail rejection with the Supreme Court on Friday. He said the Supreme Court had yet to respond.

(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)

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