Prosecutors at the Appeal Court asked yesterday for the strongest charges levied against Beehive radio station owner Mam Sonando to be replaced with lighter ones, likely paving the way for a reduction in his sentence when the verdict is delivered next Thursday.
Speaking at the close of the second and final day of the appeal hearing of Sonando and co-defendants Chan Sovann and Touch Rin, prosecutor Hean Rith said the re-investigation suggested little evidence in support of the strongest insurrection accusations.
“There is not any reason to believe that Mam Sonando incited residents to clear land or use weapons illegally against the government officials,” he said.
The strongest of Sonando’s convictions – insurrection and inciting people to take up arms against the government – should be dropped and replaced by Forestry Law charges, suggested Rith.
The suggested charges of clearing forest land and claiming ownership still carry five- to 10-year sentences.
In October, the 71-year-old Sonando was sentenced to 20 years, accused of masterminding a separatist movement in Kratie’s Pro Ma village. Co-defendants Kan Sovan, aka Chan Sovann, and Touch Siem, aka Touch Rin, were sentenced to three and five years, respectively, on related charges.
The so-called secession movement was used as justification by the government for a violent mass eviction in May that resulted in the death of a teenage girl. While no investigation of the government security forces’ shooting was launched, more than half a dozen local villagers were promptly arrested in conjunction with the supposed movement. Sonando, meanwhile, was later labelled by Prime Minister Hun Sen as the mastermind and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Both the claims of secession and the trial were roundly derided by rights groups as contrivances backed by no evidence.
At yesterday’s session, three plaintiffs – including a village chief and police officer – gave testimony that appeared to exculpate Sonando. All three said they had never seen Mam Sonando nor knew of him, apart from his radio broadcasts.
“I never saw Mam Sonando but heard his name only on the radio, and he never visited Pro Ma village,” said villager Chheang Chhat.
Seven suspects-turned-witnesses who provided the bulk of the case against Sonando, and were later released, failed to show up to the hearing.
Lawyers for Sonando, Ream and Sovann called on the judges to drop the charges entirely, but both they and rights monitors were cautiously optimistic about the defendants’ prospects following the prosecutor’s request.
In an unprecedented step, the court for the first time accepted an independent expert analysis – a damning brief submitted by the Cambodian Centre of Human Rights that detailed the many flaws of the original Municipal Court hearing.
“If the verdict is legally rendered, Sonando will be freed,” said CCHR President Ou Virak.
Like other rights monitors, Licadho techinical supervisor Am Sam Ath, said he was displeased by the attempted charge swap – for which there appeared to be no evidence – but remained somewhat optimistic.
Speaking to journalists as he was hustled from the courtroom into a van, a grinning Sonando for the second day in a row flashed “victory” signs and professed complete calm.
“I’m happy but not 100 per cent yet, because I’m not wrong at all,” he said, adding that he was “confident” the court would make the right decision.
By the end of day two, an estimated 800 supporters who demonstrated outside the court’s gates had been whittled down to a spare 100. As the details of the hearing trickled from the courtroom into the crowd later yesterday afternoon, a cheer arose from the crowd. An organiser grabbed a loudspeaker and began instructing people on the plan of action.
“Now we say goodbye, but next week, on the 14th, we will return. And we will see that justice is served.”