The Phnom Penh Municipal Court handed down a 20-year jail sentence to independent radio station owner Mam Sonando yesterday for his role in fomenting an alleged secessionist movement in a decision drawing condemnation from human rights groups and some of Cambodia’s main foreign donors.
The court also convicted and sentenced 13 other co-defendants, including three in absentia. However, seven of the 13 who had cooperated with the prosecution had their jail terms suspended and were freed by the court.
The 71-year-old Mr. Sonando, who was wearing a crisp white short-sleeved shirt with a bold blue tie, gave away little emotion as Judge Chaing Sinat meted out the conviction.
“The court has enough evidence against defendant Mam Sonando, who is an instigator and incited [co-defendant] Bun Ratha to lead people to take up arms against the state,” the judge said.
At a four-day trial last month, Mr. Sonando mounted a spirited defense against all six charges against him, from leading an insurrection to obstructing public business. But as police bundled him into a van heading to Prey Sar prison yesterday, he declined to comment on the court decision.
“I am happy to help Khmer. I am happy to help the Khmer nation,” he told a scrum of reporters before being driven away.
Mr. Sonando’s lawyer, Sok Sam Oeun, shook his head repeatedly at the verdict but said he was “not surprised” and would likely appeal.
“I think we will do that. Twenty years; he will die in prison,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.
Mr. Sam Oeun, a prominent human rights defender in his own right as the head of the Cambodian Defenders Project, an NGO that provides legal aid to the poor, said the verdict would also have a chilling effect on other government critics.
“This verdict makes the other people afraid to speak,” he said.
Mr. Sonando, whose Beehive Radio station is one of the only broadcasters in the country to air material considered critical of the government, was charged in mid-July for allegedly helping stir up a secessionist movement in Kratie province where the Casotim rubber company was involved in a land dispute with local villagers.
After returning from a trip to the U.S. in July, he was arrested a few days later by police.
National and international rights groups have called the claims of a secession an excuse employed by the government to conduct a massive forced eviction of some 600 residents of Kratie province’s Broma village in May.
During the security operation against the alleged secessionists, the only casualty was a 14-year-old girl who was shot dead while cowering in her house as police and soldiers stormed Broma village firing bullets.
Authorities have remained adamant that there is no need to investigate who killed the teenager, or why she was killed by either police or soldiers.
The European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, expressed “serious concern” over the decision.
“This conviction raises severe doubts about the impartiality and independence of the court,” she said in a statement.
Surya Subedi, the U.N.’s independent human rights envoy to Cambodia, whose 2010 report on the country’s courts described a judiciary riddled with corruption, said he was “shocked” by the decision and called the sentence “excessive.”
The U.S. Embassy said it was “disappointed and concerned.”
“The case of Mam Sonando calls into question the protection of one’s basic human rights. While Cambodia has taken some steps forward on human rights issues, recurring issues like that of Mam Sonando threaten future progress,” the embassy said in an email.
Outside the courthouse, anger over the decision among the hundreds of Mr. Sonando’s supporters was visceral.
Riot police blocked the protesters off several hundred meters away from the courthouse, where they wore Beehive Radio T-shirts and waved posters of the station owner.
“The court is not just,” said Nhab Heat, who made her way from Prey Veng province to attend the demonstration. “If the court prosecutes Sonando like this, the court should prosecute all Khmer people.”
A “good man in jail. Why?” asked another supporter venting his anger in broken English.
The Justice Ministry’s Cabinet chief Sam Pracheameanith declined to comment.
Human rights groups yesterday were unanimous in painting the verdict as a political decision.
They say the charges leveled against Mr. Sonando likely stemmed from a story Beehive Radio broadcast back in June about a dissident group of Khmer Americans that had filed a crimes against humanity complaint against Prime Minister Hun Sen with the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague.
Mr. Hun Sen first linked Mr. Sonando to the alleged Kratie secession the day after the ICC story aired on Beehive Radio.
At last month’s trial, the prosecution’s case against Mr. Sonando rested on the testimony of a few witnesses and printouts from the website of the U.S. group that filed the ICC complaint, the Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM).
The witnesses, among the seven defendants who had their jail sentences commuted yesterday and were released, claimed Mr. Sonando had offered his help in their land dispute with the rubber plantation.
The printouts from the Internet were of the KPPM’s call for the dissolution of Cambodian government offices and the group’s invitation to Mr. Sonando to speak at one of its events in the U.S.
While the trial itself had the trappings of an honest affair, the verdict showed it to be no more than the “appearance of justice,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Asia researcher for Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, who attended the hearings.
“I think perhaps the government has learned some lessons about making a trial appear a bit fairer, and perhaps trying to deflect a bit of criticism that way. But in terms of the direction of the justice system, [this was] very, very depressing indeed, because we can see that this verdict can only really have been based on external influence, outside interference,” he said.
“There was no evidence to suggest that, one, anything like insurrection took place at that village. It seemed much more like a land dispute and people taking action to defend their land. And secondly, there was no evidence to suggest that Mam Sonando had any involvement at all,” he added.
A statement from 12 local NGOs, unions and media organizations called Mr. Sonando’s sentence “draconian.”
“Sonando represents a threat to the government, but not because he has any intention to secede,” Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, said in the statement. “It’s because he owns one of the last remaining independent radio stations in Cambodia and because he provides airtime to opposition parties and voices from outside the ruling circle.”
In addition to Mr. Sonando, the court also sentenced three Broma villagers for their roles in the alleged secession to between 10 months and five years in jail.
But the stiffest sentence of the day went to Broma villager and alleged co-leader Bun Ratha, who was given 30 years in jail in absentia. The prosecution accused him of rallying fellow villagers to secede and intimidating those who refused to join. He and two other defendants, each sentenced to 15 years in jail, remain at large.
The convictions of Mr. Sonando and other villagers follows the killing earlier this year of a forestry activist and a journalist in recent weeks.
“Looking at this year, I think we can see that today’s verdict marks what has been a general deterioration of the human rights situation…and we can see that space for free speech has shrunk,” Amnesty’s Mr. Abbott said.