‘Outsiders’ Accused of Interference in Sonando Case

The Foreign Affairs Ministry has fired back at criticism over the conviction of independent radio station owner Mam Sonando on insurrection charges, accusing “outsiders” of seeking to interfere in the judicial system.

International human rights groups and foreign governments joined local NGOs in expressing deep dismay at the 20-year jail term handed to Mr. Sonando last week by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

Supporters say the case against Mr. Sonando for allegedly leading an anti-government movement was politically motivated, and his hefty sentence was designed to silence a government critic; Mr. Sonando’s Beehive Radio was one of the few stations to air reports critical of the ruling party.

Some of the government’s main donors have weighed in. The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs said the verdict raised “severe doubts” about the independence of Cambodia’s courts. Expressing similar sentiments, the U.S. State Department called for Mr. Sonando’s immediate release, while France said the case should be re-examined “without any delays.”

But in a statement dated Friday, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong denied any government interference in the trial, and maintained that the court system is independent.

“The case of Mr. Sonando and his accomplices is not about the freedom of expression or the independence and impartiality of the court in Cambodia,” Mr. Kuong said in the statement.

“It is also not a politically motivated case, as some have falsely alleged. Cambodia is a democratic and an open society and respects the due process of law.”

Mr. Kuong also said the prosecution had made its case “beyond any reason of doubt,” and noted that neither Mr. Sonando’s radio station nor his NGO, the Association of Democrats, had been interfered with.

“It is easy and tempting for outsiders to make sweeping, unsubstantiated statements on the case of Mr. Sonando. Those statements have attempted to influence the Court of Law in Cambodia, which undermines the independence and impartiality of the court,” he said

“As a State of Law, Cambodia must implement its legal process and will not allow any secession to take place in the country,” he added.

Human rights workers who attended Mr. Sonando’s four-day trial last month said that the prosecution had failed to make its case against Mr. Sonando, relying, instead, on the testimony of a few fellow accused and on printouts from the website of a U.S.-based group of Khmer Americans who hold unflattering views of the ruling CPP. The co-accused who gave incriminating statements against Mr. Sonando had their jail sentences suspended by the municipal court in return for their cooperation with the prosecution.

Many also questioned the very basis of the government’s claim that a secessionist movement even existed.

While every-day farm implements were put on display during Mr. Sonando’s trial as alleged proof of the militant nature of the so-called secessionists, the only fatality in the whole affair was a 14-year-old girl, Heng Chantha, who was shot dead by government forces who stormed the alleged secessionist stronghold—Broma village in Kratie province. The teenager was allegedly shot while huddling with her family beneath their house; police have said there is no need to investigate her killing.

Hundreds of police and soldiers took part in the operation against Broma village, which culminated in the mass eviction of hundreds of residents who were embroiled in a land dispute with a local rubber plantation.

Mr. Sonando has one month to appeal the October 1 verdict. Mr. Sonando’s wife, Dinn Phanara, said yesterday that her husband would file an appeal soon but would not specify when.

(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)

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