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Court of Appeal rejects Sonando bail request

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Mam Sonando is escorted by guards outside the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh, this morning, Friday, Dec. 13, 2012. Heng Chivoan

The Court of Appeal rejected the bail request of jailed Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando at a brief hearing in the capital today, saying that thanks to his dual citizenship, the septuagenarian was a flight risk and, furthermore, posed a threat to public order.

If granted, the request filed by Sonando — who was convicted in October on charges of insurrection widely derided as baseless by rights groups and foreign governments — would have allowed the ailing head of the Association of Democrats to remain outside of prison until his appeal.

Sa Sovan, Sonando’s attorney, said that he had filed the request for bail because of his client’s health concerns, and that its rejection was not the end of the line.

“Now, I am preparing another appeal to the Supreme Court to ask for bail for my client,” he said.

Rupert Abbott, a researcher for Amnesty International who attended the hearing, said that the court’s decision “may not have been surprising, but it was still disappointing,” and that its rationale — that Sonando was a flight risk and a threat to public order — was ill-founded.

“In terms of the latter, a threat to public order, I don’t think he’s ever shown himself to be that before,” he said. “In terms of being a flight risk, the obvious counterargument to that — and that is what his defence argued — is that he came back to face justice. He came back from his trip abroad to Europe and the US. He definitely embraced the Cambodian side of his citizenship.”

Abbott said that Amnesty International would continue to call for Sonando’s release, and that while the original conviction was unjustified, there was still hope.

“We can see from the first case that the decision that was made was not based on the evidence, so there was obviously something else influencing the decision-making process,” he said.

But, he added, “We have seen in the case of Boeng Kak lake, that [jailed activists] were released... We’ve seen the courts overturn convictions and order releases, so we have to remain hopeful.”

The independent radio director was convicted on a handful of charges stemming from his alleged masterminding of a so-called “secessionist plot” in Kratie province’s Pro Ma village, which in May was the site of the forced eviction of hundreds of families involved in a long-running land dispute with agro-business company Casotim.

A 14-year-old girl was shot dead by government forces in the process.

The government called the eviction an “anti-secessionist raid”, despite repeated denials of separatism from villagers, and claims from rights groups that the official explanation was simply a cover for the eviction itself.

Kim Sary, a member of the Association of Democrats from Kratie province who came to the capital to support Sonando, also expressed disappointment in today’s decision.

“Right now Mam Sonando is sick, and Mam Sonando never escaped from the country,” she said.

“Why not release him from detention? He dared to come face the law, so the court should release him from detention.”

Sary also voiced her discontent with the 200 or so riot police who blocked her and a roughly equal number fellow demonstrators — some from the Association of Democrats and some from the displaced Boeng Kak and Borei Keila communities — from coming near the court of appeals, where the hearing was held.

Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Ou Virak said that he had been optimistic before the hearing.

“The appeals court rarely reverses the decision of the Phnom Penh court because they don’t want to find fault with the Phnom Penh court, so in the past the bail was the way out [for wrongfully convicted people]; that’s how they do it,” he said.

“We hoped that maybe the tide had turned a bit and the government and Hun Sen were saying, ‘that’s enough of a crackdown’... but I guess the backwards movement and the repression of human rights continues.”

“The convict ion was a political one and the decision to let him free will be a political one,” he added. “So we just have to see what the political situation is at that time.”

Din Phanara, Sonando’s wife, said that even after the ruling, she remained hopeful.

“Today, I am very disappointed because my husband was not granted bail, but I still believe in the judicial system in Cambodia that it will provide justice for my husband, and my husband will be free in the near future,” she said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Khouth Sophak Chakrya at sophakchakrya.khouth@phnompenhpost.com ; Stuart White at stuart.white@phnompenhpost.com

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