Radio broadcaster and former Beehive Party President Mam Sonando was served a summons last week by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to appear as a witness in relation to a “treason” case filed against former opposition President Kem Sokha.
Sokha – the former president of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party – has been languishing in a Tbong Khmum province prison since September on allegations that he conspired with foreign powers to topple the Cambodian People’s Party-led government.
The arrest was part of a concerted campaign by the government to link Sokha and the United States to a so-called colour revolution, which culminated in the dissolution of the CNRP – the only legitimate competitor to the CPP – by the Supreme Court last month.
While Sokha has been questioned three times by Investigating Judge Ky Rithy, Sonando would be the first witness in the case.
The summons, issued on December 22, is marked as the third sent to Sonando, who yesterday said he was surprised at having not received the first two calls for questioning, and at being involved in the case in the first place.
“What makes me surprised is that there is the third warrant,” he said. “I do not know any foreigners and I do not get involved with foreign affairs at all.”
Sonando, who is currently in France on a medical visit, resigned from the presidency of the Beehive Social Democratic Party in August but is still head of Beehive Radio, or Sambo Khmum radio in Khmer.
During the recent government crackdown on the opposition, civil society and media outlets, Sonando’s Beehive Radio was asked to stop airing Radio Free Asia and Voice of America programming, purportedly because the station had failed to report those airtime sales to the Information Ministry. Numerous other stations airing RFA and VOA were abruptly shuttered.
The former party leader has a long history of brushes with Cambodia’s courts. In 2003, he was arrested after a caller to the station incorrectly claimed that Cambodian Embassy officials were killed in Bangkok during the anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh. His second arrest was linked to an opinion given by a France-based expert who criticised Hun Sen for giving border concessions to Vietnam in 2005.
Most notably, Sonando was accused of plotting a purported “secessionist” movement in a small village in Kratie province that was involved in a land dispute with an agribusiness firm in 2012.
The charges, widely believed to be politically motivated, came after Beehive published a report on an International Court of Justice complaint against Prime Minister Hun Sen blaming him for the 2010 Koh Pich stampede.
He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and served close to a year until the verdict was overturned by the Appeal Court in 2013 following international and domestic condemnation.
“Now they call me as the witness to talk about what? There is nothing. Therefore, they want to arrest and jail me,” Sonando said yesterday, claiming he was now the third political target of the current crackdown after Sokha and his predecessor, Sam Rainsy.
He did say that the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, then under the leadership of Sokha, had bought airtime from Beehive Radio to broadcast shows, and that he had used that money to upgrade the station’s services, but he said that was the extent of their professional relationship.
Sonando said he will return to Cambodia on January 15, four days after he is meant to appear in court, and said he needed to consult with lawyers about his next course of action.
However, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said unless Sonando had a valid reason to skip the questioning, he could face his own court complaint for failing to appear before the judge. “If he does not enter the court because of a proper reason, they [the court] can prolong the time for him, but if he rejects entering without any reasonable reasons, it is a crime.”
Malin added that it was the prerogative of the investigating judge to question people potentially linked to the case.
Political commentator Meas Nee said the linking of Sonando to the Sokha case seemed politically motivated. “When it happens in this current situation, like it or not, it will be [alleged] that he might be the next target in the crackdown.”