Prosecutor Wants Change to Sonando Charges

In a bizarre twist at the Appeal Court hearing of jailed radio station owner Mam Sonando, the prosecution on Wednesday asked that judges drop the charge against Mr. Sonando of inciting antigovernment violence, but then asked the court to uphold another charge of leading an insurrection.

Jailed radio station owner Mam Sonando waves to photographers from a holding room at the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, during the second day of hearings to have Mr. Sonando's 20-year jail sentence overturned. (Siv Channa)
Jailed radio station owner Mam Sonando waves to photographers from a holding room at the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, during the second day of hearings to have Mr. Sonando’s 20-year jail sentence overturned. (Siv Channa)

Both charges carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

The owner of independent Beehive Radio, Mr. Sonando was convicted on a total of six charges for stoking an alleged secessionist movement in rural Kratie province by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in October and handed down a 20-year jail sentence in a decision widely denounced as politically motivated and aimed at stifling a popular government critic.

Appeal Court prosecutor Hean Rith asked the judges to uphold five of those charges, including the one for leading an “insurrectionary movement,” but to drop the charge of inciting anti-government violence.

In its place, though, the prosecutor asked the court to convict Mr. Sonando of a brand new charge, under the forestry protection law, of illegally clearing state-owned forestland for private ownership, which carries a prison sentence of five to 10 years.

“The prosecution believes the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s decision to charge Mr. Sonando with Article 464 was not right and that he should be charged with Article 97.6 of the Forestry Law,” Mr. Rith said.

Mr. Sonando is appealing all the charges against him, alongside Touch Ream and Khan Sovann, who were handed five- and three-year jail terms, respectively, for their own roles in the alleged insurrection.

All three have adamantly professed their innocence.

Presiding Judge Khun Leang Meng, bringing two days of hearings to a close, said the court would issue its decision on March 14.

Contacted afterward, Mr. Rith, the prosecutor, said the Forestry Law charge made sense because the alleged secessionists in Kratie province’s Broma village were in a dispute with Casotim, the private owner of a local rubber plantation.

“I asked the judges to change one of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s charges and keep the others,” he said. “It is a land dispute and a forestry issue, not an incitement issue.”

Mr. Sonando’s lawyer, Sa Sovan, said the Appeal Court had no authority to change the original charges, only to uphold or drop them entirely.

Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, a legal aid NGO, said the courtroom twist was astonishing.

Mr. Virak said the prosecutor’s attempt to have Mr. Sonando convicted of leading an insurrection without actually inciting violence—the charge he wants dropped—was mind-boggling.

“It does not make any sense,” he said.

However bizarre, Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for local rights group Licadho, said merely swapping one charge for another would make little difference.

“It is not good for Mr. Sonando because he still faces other criminal charges,” he said. “Those other articles still carry three- to 10-year prison terms, and some three to five years.”

Outside the courthouse gates, hundreds of Mr. Sonando’s supporters who had come from far and wide were no less wary of success.

Kong Hong, who joined some friends in renting a taxi for the trip from Kompong Cham province, proudly sported a baseball cap with the logo of Mr. Sonando’s NGO, the Association of Democrats. A member since early last year, his Association of Democrats photo ID hung from around his neck.

“Mam Sonando broadcasts the real thing in Cambodia; he educates people about democracy,” he said of Mr. Sonando’s Beehive Radio station, one of the few independent broadcasters left in Cambodia.

“They convicted him because they didn’t like his activity, so that he can’t speak on the radio,” Mr. Hong said. “They don’t want Sonando to do something right for the people.”

Rupert Abbott, Cambodia researcher for Amnesty International, said the failure of all seven witnesses that Mr. Sonando’s lawyers had asked to attend the hearing—for the second straight day—also left the proceedings wanting of due process.

Some of the seven had been co-defendants with Mr. Sonando at his first trial in September and implicated the radio station owner in the alleged insurrection. After Mr. Sonando was convicted, those who had testified against the radio presenter had the remainder of their prison sentence suspended and walked free.

“I think it’s outrageous,” Mr. Abbott said of the absence of the witnesses, “because the evidence was really based on what those witnesses were saying [in court].”

“So the fact that they did not turn up and the defense did not have an opportunity to cross examine them and show the inconsistencies in what they’d said was very disappointing. And the defense asked for those testimonies to be thrown out, and I think that they have a very strong case for that.”

But Mr. Abbott said the prosecutor’s request to have one of the most serious charges dropped did add to the prospects of an early release for Mr. Sonando.

“We have to be hopeful,” he said. “We would hope that the conviction is overturned, that he is released immediately and unconditionally.”

Mr. Sonando’s case has attracted widespread attention from human rights groups and foreign governments alike, all calling for his release.

On a visit to Phnom Penh in November, U.S. President Barack Obama urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to release all of Cambodia’s political prisoners and called out Mr. Sonando by name.

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