Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando (C) is hustled into a van to be taken to Prey Sar prison after being sentenced to a 20-year jail term, Monday, Oct.1, 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
In a move that stunned his supporters and drew ire from rights groups and foreign embassies alike, independent radio station owner Mam Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in prison yesterday on charges of insurrection.
Sonando, owner of broadcaster Beehive Radio and president of the rights group the Association of Democrats, was convicted of masterminding a so-called secessionist plot in Kratie province’s Pro Ma village in May – an accusation that has been roundly dismissed by rights groups and opposition figures as baseless and politically motivated.
“Even for a long-time activist like myself, a 20-year activist, it’s still shocking to see them convict someone like Mam Sonando with no shred of evidence,” Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Ou Virak said outside the courtroom after the verdict was announced. “I’m very, very upset that we’ve been pushing this government, but nothing has changed. The court is still a political tool, and the verdict read like a political essay.”
In addition to his 20-year sentence, Sonando was ordered by the court to pay a 10 million riel ($2,500) fine. The court also convicted in absentia alleged co-conspirator Bun Ratha – who had once volunteered for the Association of Democrats – sentencing him to 30 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 million riel.
Bun Chhorn and Sok Tong, also convicted in absentia, were each sentenced to 15 years and fined eight million riel, and three other co-defendants were given sentences ranging from 10 months to three years in jail.
However, the five defendants who had previously cut immunity deals with the government and promised to testify against their alleged ringleaders were all given suspended sentences.
Inside the courtroom, the gallery burst into shouts of disbelief as the guilty verdict was read, prompting presiding Judge Chang Sinath to call the room to order.
Din Phannara, Sonando’s wife, called the court “unjust”, and the verdict “unacceptable” before worrying aloud about the ramifications of her husband’s imprisonment.
“His absence is like the absence of the Beehive Radio station, and Cambodia will not have democracy anymore,” she said.
Sok Sam Oeun, head of the Cambodian Defenders Project and Sonando’s attorney, declined to comment on the verdict, noting that if a court could convict Sonando over so little, they could convict him too.
“I cannot say whether the court’s verdict is just or unjust, because only a few words of conversation are considered to be incitement, so me giving a comment would be incitement as well,” he said.
Outside, a collective cry of outrage arose as word of the verdict worked its way through the throng of Sonando supporters. Protesters who had previously been slipping through laxly enforced checkpoints in ones and twos swelled en masse past the barriers and clashed with a hurriedly formed police line a few metres away.
The demonstrators soon broke through the line, halting their advance after police regrouped, but continuing to shout – in many cases, tearfully – at police and onlookers.
Sonando supporter Som Sim, 84, angrily denounced the court, which he characterised as being a tool of the powerful.
“What is he guilty of? Why was he jailed? He always helped the poor people, and did only good things,” Sim said. “I will seek justice for him under any circumstances, until the end of my life.”
The charges against Sonando stemmed from the forced eviction of hundreds of families in Kratie province’s Pro Ma village last May, an eviction in which an unarmed 14-year-old girl was shot and killed by government forces.
The government never investigated the killing, nor was anyone arrested, but officials later described the operation as a necessary anti-secessionist raid, meant to quell a group that was attempting to withdraw from Cambodia and form an “autonomous zone”.
Villagers repeatedly insisted that they had no intention of seceding, and maintained that they had simply been applying for land titles.
Prime Minister Hun Sen first implicated Sonando in the alleged plot in a speech in June, just one day after Sonando broadcasted a report from The Hague, where the US-based group Khmer People Power Movement had filed a complaint to the International Criminal Court accusing the ruling party of crimes against humanity in its treatment of land disputes.
The KPPM figured heavily into the prosecution’s case against Sonando, with prosecutors arguing that Sonando shared the group’s view of the government.
The prosecution presented what appeared to be KPPM mission statements they said they had found on the internet, and noted that Sonando had met with the movement’s leader, but offered no further evidence that Sonando was sympathetic to their cause.
Sonando, for his part, said that he had indeed met with the group, but only as a reporter.
Huon Pannary, under-secretary of Sonando’s Association of Democrats, also maintained that Sonando’s meetings with the KPPM had been totally innocuous.
“He’s a journalist; he just interviewed the KPPM,” she said.
The rest of the prosecution’s case relied almost entirely on witness testimony, testimony that often conflicted with previous statements to police and that of other witnesses, and testimony that several witnesses freely admitted was based solely on hearsay.
Evidence of armed insurrection was limited to a handful of seized farming implements and traditional bows and arrows that villagers maintained were used for nothing more than hunting.
Civil society, the opposition and foreign governments were quick to slam the verdict.
Amnesty International researcher Rupert Abbott said after the trial that Sonando was targeted for prosecution because “he was seen as a threat to the government”.
“There was no evidence whatsoever that Mam Sonando was involved,” he told reporters.
“We can see that this verdict marks a year that has seen a decline in the human rights situation [in Cambodia] … The space for free speech is shrinking.”
However, Abbott said, Cambodian courts have learned to present at least a façade of credibility. “I think on the face of things, the process was quite good on this trial, especially when you compare it to the Boeung Kak trial,” he said, before adding that observers “have not been fooled by the appearance of justice”.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua called the sentence a “travesty and an injustice”, and a “huge step backward for democracy in Cambodia.”
Sochua also said that she had received calls from villagers in Kampong Cham, Prey Veng and Kandal provinces who said they had been threatened by authorities when it came to light that they planned to attend yesterday’s demonstration.
A dozen NGOs and rights groups – including Licadho, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee and the Community Legal Education Center – blasted the court’s decision in a joint statement, calling the conviction “shocking” and the sentence “draconian”.
The office of the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, issued its own statement, saying the verdict “raises severe doubts about the impartiality and independence of the court”.