Hoisted above his adoring followers in a sedan chair, Mam Sonando rode through the gates of Prey Sar prison on Friday doing what he knows best – talking to the people. This time, however, was through a megaphone rather than a microphone.
The freed independent Beehive radio station owner beamed as he exited the facility where he quite possibly would have spent the rest of his life were it not for an Appeal Court verdict considerably reducing his sentence.
“When I was in prison, I always dreamed of touching my peoples’ skin as I did before. Now, I have touched their skin again after I was missing for eight months,” he said.
For those who had fought an increasingly sophisticated campaign to quash widely denounced insurrection charges, this was a moment of euphoria.
Hundreds, perhaps a thousand, of those supporters lined the path out of Prey Sar, singing, dancing, playing traditional music, shouting and cheering.
Weeping tears of joy, 82-year-old Prak Nhem from Prey Veng province said he had been overwhelmed by excitement when he saw Sonando walk free.
“From today on, we can hear his sounds from his radio again that educate the people, and we will not worry any more about him,” he said.
But though his 20-year-jail sentence was reduced to five years and suspended to just eight months – seeing him released only one day after the verdict was handed down – Sonando told the crowd he would keep fighting to clear his name from the baseless charges.
“I did no wrong, so I have to try and protect my reputation. And I will talk to my lawyer about filing a complaint to the Supreme Court as well,” he said.
Sonando, the president of pro-democracy group the Association of Democrats, was jailed in July for allegedly plotting to lead a small village’s attempt to secede from the state of Cambodia. He and three other men were sentenced on related charges in October.
The charges came after the government sent a massive security force to crack down on the alleged ringleaders in Kratie province’s Pro Ma village, killing a 14-year-old girl in the process. Both the secession claims and the subsequent arrests were widely denounced by rights groups, who said there was no evidence of either.
Instead, they maintained, the government’s crackdown had been a case of the state storming a village to evict hundreds of residents fighting rubber concessionaire Casotim, with whom they had been locked in a long-raging land dispute.
The arrest of Sonando, meanwhile, whom villagers in Pro Ma maintain they had never even seen in person, came just days after he reported about an attempt to have Hun Sen indicted by the International Criminal Court.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said yesterday his release amidst huge public outcry boded as badly for the independence of Cambodian courts as did his original sentence.
“The arrest of Mam Sonando was related to politics, and his release today is also political,” he said.
Last week, political analyst Lao Mong Hay told the Post the Sonando case was just the latest suggesting the politicised nature of Cambodia’s courts allowed other countries to influence their decisions.
“For serious cases related to politically motivated charges – now there’s two precedents already. Until there is enough pressure from outside [the government doesn’t act].”
Inside the complex that houses Sonando’s Kandal home, replete with a broadcasting studio and a giant radio tower, a group of monks blessed him after he arrived to a hero’s welcome complete with supporters lining his long driveway.
In a room of his house, Sonando then granted a small group of reporters the chance to turn the microphones on him.
Asked what the topic of his first radio broadcast since he was jailed would be, Sonando laughed and said he did not yet know, but assured all that he would be back on air.