Throngs of protesters gathered at the Olympic Stadium yesterday, at times straining against a mix of police force barriers and riot shields in their effort to show support for jailed Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando, whose trial was beginning just down the street at Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Sonando, 70 – along with co-defendants Kan Sovan, aka Chan Sovann; Touch Siem, aka Touch Rin; and Phoin Sroeurn – is faced with a handful of charges stemming from his alleged masterminding of a so-called secessionist plot in Kratie province, amid ongoing calls for his release from opposition politicians and rights organisations who maintain that the charges against him are unfounded.
Five other defendants are also currently on the docket – Phoin Phal, Heng Soeurn, Mao Veasna, Khat Saroeurn and Ma Chhang – despite having been promised immunity in exchange for their testimony.
A few minutes after Sonando’s trial began, press were pushed from the courtroom, where the case continued to be heard over a 10-hour period yesterday.
Sonando, who is also the president of the rights group Association of Democrats, was the first witness to be questioned.
“I am not involved with the plan to establish an autonomous area in Kratie province’s Pro Ma village, Chhlong district; I don’t know anything about that,” he said, noting that he wouldn’t even recognise alleged co-conspirator Bun Ratha’s face, before the courtroom doors were closed.
In May, Pro Ma 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 during a villager protest.
The government called the eviction an “anti-secessionist raid”, despite repeated claims from villagers – including one-time Association of Democrats volunteer Bun Ratha – that they were simply applying for land titles.
Yesterday’s only witnesses were the nine accused, and as testimony continued behind closed doors. Other witnesses and the defendants’ family members milled around outside the courtroom where “Free Mam Sonando. Stop the Violence” T-shirts were being distributed in abundance.
In addition to the 300-plus protesters who turned out to support Sonando, a who’s who of rights workers, activists, opposition politicians and NGO staffers were circulating through the crowds outside the court.
Activist monk Luon Savath filmed the proceedings, and SRP parliamentarian Mu Sochua led the crowd in chants and songs. Even a contingent of Boeung Kak protesters lent their voices to the protest.
The demonstration turned ugly for a few moments early in the day as a wave of demonstrators – with Sochua at its head, chanting – swelled past the barriers erected at one end of Monireth Boulevard, breaking against a line of riot police three officers deep.
Protesters joined police in a head-on scrum that left children who were caught in the melee bawling, and several protesters with bruises and bloodied shins – injuries they sustained, they said, when police began punching and kicking them through gaps in their shields.
The crush of protesters eventually broke through the line, and settled behind a new line of barricades established by the police, who agreed to cede several metres of territory after a quick consultation from a representative from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“The children were being squeezed,” Sochua said after the scene had quieted, explaining her repeated exhortations to police to “put the shields down”.
Vich Kim Chhon, 73, one of only seven witnesses out of a total of 86 scheduled to testify on the defendants’ behalf told the Post that he had travelled from Kratie’s Kampong Brama village to testify because he “never saw Mam Sonando go to Kratie province”.
“I can say that he doesn’t know anything about the plan to establish an autonomous area,” he said.
Sreng Pho, wife of defendant Kan Sovan, said that her husband had been taken away by police as he was bringing his daughter to the hospital to deliver her baby.
“Because I want my husband and Mam Sonando to get justice, I borrowed 100,000 riel from my neighbour to travel to Phnom Penh,” she said, tears streaming down her face.
Though reporters were barred from the majority of the proceedings, some representatives from civil society groups, foreign embassies and the national assembly were allowed to observe.
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay, who attended part of the hearing yesterday morning, said that the trial was riddled with irregularities.
“[One] defendant could not read or write,” said Chhay, detailing police malfeasance that had come to light in court. “They made him thumbprint two or three pages [of affidavit], but only read him one or two lines, with no lawyer present.
“Even the prosecution is involved in cheating and creating fake documents, and that is quite usual,” he added.
When asked if the prosecution had brought any physical evidence, Chhay replied: “Absolutely not.”
“They only brought some traditional archery [equipment], and some picks,” he said, laughing off the government’s claim that the Pro Ma villagers had planned an armed insurrection. “They were totally unusable, these so-called weapons.”
Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak also attended the morning session of the trial, and echoed Chhay’s sentiments.
“The three witnesses appeared to be contradicting the original statements by the investigating judges and the police,” he said, corroborating the assessment that the witnesses had been made to sign statements that they hadn’t read.
“Their answers haven’t seemed to point to Mam Sonando’s involvement in anything.”
However, Virak said, Sonando’s alleged accomplices that accepted Prime Minister Hun Sen’s June offer of immunity in exchange for their testimony had yet to take the stand.
Sok Sam Oeun, head of the Cambodian Defenders Project and Sonando’s attorney, said the court’s handling of the case so far had been “okay”, but corroborated that defendants had denied using the bows and arrows, knives and hoes, brought by the prosecution, to start a rebellion.
“They testified that these were normal instruments for farming, and they were there before” the forced eviction in May, he said.
A monk from Kratie, Venerable Kao Sovann Theoun, was arrested around 9:30am near the pagoda flanking the demonstration and taken to Makara district for his suspected involvement in the protest, CCHR reported.
A witness later said he was released shortly after, when it was discovered he had nothing to do with the demonstration.