Donors Criticize Sonando Sentence

Three of Cambodia’s most important foreign donors have now condemned the 20-year jail term handed down to independent radio station owner Mam Sonando for alleged insurrection activities—a verdict branded as politically motivated by many local and international human rights groups.

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Mam Sonando, 71, waves to supporters last month during his trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. The sentencing of the radio station owner to 20 years in prison on Monday has led to widespread condemnation from human rights groups and Cambodia’s major aid donors. (Siv Channa)

Despite the tough words from the normally very diplomatic donors, none have suggested that aid will be cut nor other sanctions threatened despite what many see as a steady decline in freedom of association, of speech and mounting use of state violence against peaceful protests.

German Ambassador Wolfgang Moser yesterday called the verdict “a pity” before deferring to a statement issued on Monday from European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, who said the conviction raised “severe doubts” about the Cambodian court’s independence.

France, where Mr. Sonando has citizenship, said it “deplores” the conviction.

“[France] calls on the Cambodian authorities to guarantee that the justice system re-examines this case without any delay in a fair and equitable way,” said Philippe Lalliot, spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry in Paris. Mr. Lalliot said the French Embassy in Phnom Penh would continue to follow the case and visit Mr. Sonando at Prey Sar prison.

The U.S. State Department said the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s verdict was “deeply concerning” and called for Mr. Sonando’s immediate release.

“A number of observers in Cambodia have noted that the charges against him appear to have been politically motivated, based on his frequent criticism of the government,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in the statement.

“We call on the Cambodian government to release Mam Sonando immediately, to ensure that its court system is free from political influence, and to reaffirm its commitment to guaranteeing its citizens’ basic rights,” Ms. Nuland wrote.

Mr. Sonando, the 71-year-old owner of Beehive Radio, was convicted Monday on all six charges leveled against him for fomenting an alleged secessionist movement in Kratie province.

At his four-day trial last month, the prosecution presented little evidence of a genuine attempt by residents of Kratie’s Broma village to secede from the state and even less, linking Mr. Sonando to any such plot.

Human rights groups say the government fabricated the alleged plot as a cover for its eviction in May of some 600 Broma villagers locked in a land dispute with a local rubber plantation, during which soldiers or police shot dead a 14-year-old girl.

They accuse the government of targeting Mr. Sonando to silence the owner of one of the few critical radio stations in the country.

Though the condemnation was swift, none of the donors who issued statements has suggested cutting back on aid, which at more than $1.1 billion a year, covers close to half the government’s annual budget.

Ahead of a major meeting between the government and most of its foreign donors last week, several international rights groups—Freedom Watch, Global Witness and Human Rights Watch (HRW) among them—urged aid donors “not to endorse and reward the actions of the [government] through a large-scale injection of new funds.”

“Further international aid should ensure that democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Cambodia are strengthened. As it stands, these are all demonstrably compromised,” they said last week, noting Mr. Sonando’s case as a key example.

In a statement yesterday, HRW said last week’s meeting adjourned “without any significant pressure” from the donors. HRW again called on donors to “insist” on Mr. Sonando’s immediate release.

“The conviction and long sentence of Mam Sonando without a sliver of evidence is a new low,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director.

“Cambodia’s courts are so politicized they might as well hold the proceedings in Hun Sen’s house,” he said.

The convictions of Mr. Sonando and 13 co-defendants on Monday, Mr. Adams added, “should serve as a wake-up call to foreign donors that Cambodia is rapidly becoming a one-party state…. Hun Sen has been in power for more than 27 years and doesn’t seem to mind his country replacing Burma as Asean’s pariah state.”

Human Rights Watch also urged U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders to have November’s East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh moved unless the “baseless convictions” against Mr. Sonando and others are overturned.

An online petition on the website calling on Mr.  Obama to cancel his visit had attracted some 950 signatures as of yesterday evening.

The U.S. State Department declined to comment yesterday on whether the Sonando verdict would influence Mr. Obama’s decision to visit Phnom Penh.

Independent political observer Lao Mong Hay, however, said Cambodia’s democratic foreign donors would achieve little by holding back aid when China was now the country’s number one benefactor.

“So far, it seems the government is not so sensitive to that,” he said. “Now it can rely on aid from China.”

But foreign donors are not averse to cutting aid in protest.

Last year, the World Bank froze all new lending to Cambodia over the forced eviction of thousands of Phnom Penh families to make way for a Chinese-funded real estate project at Boeng Kak. Loans from the World Bank currently remain frozen.

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