Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando (L) flashes the peace sign after being hustled into a van following a sentencing hearing on Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
Outrage over the Mam Sonando verdict continued to mount yesterday as some of Cambodia’s closest allies and biggest donors joined a growing chorus; even as the government dismissed such criticism as baseless interference.
The US Department of State said it was “deeply concerned” by the conviction of the independent broadcaster and urged Sonando’s immediate release. Stressing that it “deplored” the verdict, France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, called on Cambodia “to ensure that an appeal will be given to him to promptly review the matter in a fair and equitable manner”.
On Monday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court passed down a guilty verdict and sentenced the 71-year-old Sonando to 20 years in prison on charges of insurrection, an allegation that has been widely dismissed by rights groups as politically motivated.
Government officials yesterday downplayed criticism of the verdict and called the statements from the US and France unproductive.
“It would be very helpful if the US, instead of sending a message to condemn or pressure a sovereign state, would send their own lawyers to assist Mam Sonando’s lawyer in the Appeal Court,” said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, before suggesting that a lack of sufficient legal expertise might have tripped up Sonando’s legal representative, Sok Sam Oeun, one of the country’s top lawyers and director of the Cambodian Defenders’ Project.
“A good friend is a good friend in need or indeed. The US should not be pressuring or condemning us,” he added.
At a press conference held at the Council of Ministers, Keo Remy, deputy president for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit, said the judgment of the court was not influenced by government interference.
Sonando, for his part, continues to maintain his innocence, said his wife, Din Phannara.
“He told me during my visit not to be shocked, because he is innocent,” she said, adding that she was currently preparing documents related to his appeal and planned to file the complaint within the week. “My husband is guiltless, so I can’t be at a stand still.”
Convicted of masterminding a so-called secessionist plot, Sonando has roundly insisted on his innocence, while rights groups have noted no evidence has ever been presented to prove such a plot existed.
In May, government forces used the secession claims as justification for a large-scale eviction in which authorities shot dead a 14-year-old girl and forced out hundreds of families embroiled in a land dispute with rubber plantation concessionaire Casotim.
One day after Sonando’s lengthy sentencing on what many consider false charges, observers wondered whether the Municipal Court would in fact prove to be the final word.
Comparing the case to that of the Boeung Kak 13, who were rapidly convicted but released by the Appeal Court one month later, political analyst Lao Mong Hay noted the sentence might be overturned, but only if the government felt sufficient pressure.
“I think the Mam Sonando case has not aroused as much sympathy and support,” he said. “But I think [the US statement] could do the trick. It’s comparable with the statement issued by them over the Boeung Kak lake 13 case.”