Over the din of Mam Sonando’s supporters – hundreds of whom were amassed outside – the Court of Appeal yesterday began the trial of the broadcaster and two co-defendants who were convicted last year on charges of insurrection. It will continue today.
The owner of Beehive Radio was found guilty of stoking a secessionist movement in Kratie province and sentenced to 20 years – a conviction widely denounced as politically motivated and effectively a life sentence for the 71-year-old.
Chan Sovann and Touch Rin were sentenced to three and five years, respectively, on related charges. The trio stand accused of trying to create a “state within a state” in Kratie’s Pro Ma village.
In May 2012, hundreds of government forces stormed the remote area and evicted thousands of villagers, claiming they were doing so to halt a separatist movement launched by a local activist named Bun Ratha. Though, by all accounts, villagers
were unarmed, the joint forces opened fire at one point, killing a 14-year-old girl in the process.
At the hearing, Sonando – animated and confident – offered eloquent rejoinders to the allegations levied against him.
“The accusation against me is baseless. I was not involved with, nor did I know that village. If members [of my NGO, the Association of Democrats] acted wrongly, they are legally responsible,” he told the court.
“The court should consider: If I ordered people to grab land, what is my benefit or commission from that? My task is to educate members to be good, to respect the laws, to not use violence. But, nevertheless, I became a victim,” he added.
Much of the testimony linking Sonando to the so-called separatist movement came from seven witnesses who were themselves originally arrested, charged and tried in the same Phnom Penh Municipal Court hearing as Sonando, Sovann and Rinn. They were later released in exchange for their testimonies.
Though summonses were issued, none of the seven appeared, and Sonando’s lawyer opened yesterday’s hearing with a request for adjournment, arguing that it was a violation of Sonando’s right to cross-examine his accusers.
After a 15-minute discussion, Judge Khun Leang Meng announced that the request had been denied because a delay would be a “waste of time”.
Clad in prison uniforms, Sovann and Rin both entered the dock briefly to defend themselves. Farmers from Pro Ma, both men said they were coerced into thumb-printing confessions and admitted they were illiterate and unaware of what the document said.
All eyes on the case
The Sonando trial has drawn an unusual amount of scrutiny from donor countries, rights groups and legal experts.
In November, when he met with Prime Minister Hun Sen in a historic tête-à-tête, US President Barack Obama urged that Sonando be released. Amnesty International has labelled Sonando a prisoner of conscience, and he has been short-listed for the Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk.
More than 50 people crowded into the small courtroom, packing it to capacity and spilling into the hallway. As a citizen of France, Sonando’s case was – not surprisingly – monitored by representatives from the French Embassy. But it was also attended by staff from the US, Australian and British embassies, directors of all prominent local rights NGOs, political analysts and opposition lawmakers.
While the French Embassy declined to comment, saying the case was an ongoing matter, rights workers voiced concerns at the end of yesterday’s session.
“The seven suspects-slash-witnesses, the government witnesses, were not under oath in the Phnom Penh [municipal] court and were providing conflicting information, telling me that some of them are lying . . . It’s pretty obvious, not all seven of them are sick. Not everyone at once. The fact they’re refusing to come and that the court is not doing anything about it tells me that the court has no real intention to listen,” said Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak.
Praising the court for moving ahead with the hearing, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights country representative James Heenan said he was nevertheless also discomfited by the non-attendance of witnesses.
“We were surprised that no summonsed witnesses appeared this morning, as their statements will need to be tested in Court. Clearly, they have an obligation under the Criminal Procedure Code to appear,” he wrote in an email.
The charges against Sonando, whose arrest warrant was issued just days after he was publicly implicated by Hun Sen, have been roundly dismissed as politically motivated. In a speech delivered in late June, the premier called Sonando a ringleader who “created a state within a state and cancelled a village.” The speech came shortly after Sonando reported on a complaint filed with the International Criminal Court, which called for the Cambodian government to be charged with crimes against humanity for a series of forced evictions and land grabs.
Far side of the gates
Outside the court, more than 500 Association of Democrats members – many of them elderly and impoverished farmers who had travelled hundreds of kilometres – chanted for Sonando’s release. Dozens of police and military police were posted along Sisowath Quay and Sothearos Boulevard, and, for much of the morning, traffic ground to a near halt as cars slowed to watch the growing crowd.
As the case progressed throughout the morning, the cries of the crowd could be heard hundreds of metres away in the courtroom.
“Mam Sonando never breaks the law, but he is a real patriot . . . The authorities have accused him wrongly and are trying to damage his reputation,” said Oub Nov, 70. Draped in a krama and wearing a small paper crown with the words “Free Mam Sonando” printed across it, the Kampong Cham villager said he was tired of seeing such cases unfold.
“The action happens again and again to innocent and poor people.”
Standing near a sign bearing the number of Cambodians who had thumb-printed a petition to see Sonando freed – 140,489 – 73-year-old Phoun Phoung from Prey Veng said there appeared to be little evidence supporting the government’s claims.
“I did not see reports saying villagers used guns, weapons or armoured cars against the government’s forces . . . But the government forces used modern weapons to fight back [against] Pro Ma villagers.”
The other men
Of the hundreds of supporters chanting outside the gates, only one had a different name on his mind.
“I came to join the strike today to demand the Court of Appeal release my grandson Touch Rin,” said Chhoem Soth, 71. The Pro Ma villager spent the better part of the day and significant funds coming down to Phnom Penh to support Rin, Sovann and Sonando.
“None of them committed the illegal actions of which they were accused.”
For the families of Rin and Sovann, the morning proved alternately agonising and blissful. After both men were escorted from the police van into the court, family members, who had seen the men just once since their May arrest, began weeping.
Increasingly hysterical, Sovann’s wife, Sreng Pho, launched herself against the courtroom door, screaming for justice.
“Without my husband, we have no money. We have no way to live,” she said, sobbing, before returning to a bench outside the courtroom.
Inside, the judges read out the allegations against Rin and Sovann. After half an hour, the two were permitted to leave, escorted, to a holding room. Still in handcuffs, swimming in too-big prison uniforms, the pair began beaming as their wives and children followed them in, sat down and began to share a meal with them – the first in nearly a year.