Phnom Penh (Oct. 1, 2012) - We, the undersigned civil
society organizations, condemn the Phnom Penh Municipal Court's shocking
conviction of independent radio station owner Mam Sonando today, and the
draconian 20-year sentence that he received. At age 70, Sonando is likely to
die in prison if he serves his full term.
Sonando, the owner of Beehive radio, was arrested on July 12
on charges that he masterminded a so-called "secessionist movement" in Kratie.
Several co-defendants were charged with organizing the movement on the ground.
They were all convicted as well, though two of the previously identified "ringleaders" had their sentences suspended, echoing the Prime Minister's
public statement that those who confess would be spared punishment.
The prosecutors argued that the alleged secession plot
originated in Kratie province's Broma village, and that villagers had taken up
arms against the authorities in an attempt to create their own nation-state. In
May, hundreds of armed government forces stormed the village and evicted
hundreds of residents. Authorities claimed they conducted the raid to quell the
secession movement. However, it was also well-known that the villagers were
involved in an ongoing and escalating land dispute with the company Casotim,
which controls a 15,000-hectare land concession nearby.
A 14-year-old girl was shot dead by authorities during the
forced eviction. She was unarmed, and there was no evidence presented at trial
that any of the villagers possessed firearms. Prosecutors instead argued that
villagers planned to use common farm and hunting tools to defeat Cambodian
forces and form their own nation.
"Sonando represents a threat to the government, but not
because he has any intention to secede," said Naly Pilorge, Director of
Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO). "It's
because he owns one of the last remaining independent radio stations in
Cambodia, and because he provides airtime to opposition parties and voices from
outside the ruling circle."
Although Sonando was accused of masterminding the supposed
secession movement in May, his arrest did not come until after he broadcast a
report on June 25 from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague,
Netherlands. The report concerned a filing at the ICC by the Khmer People Power
Movement that accused Cambodian government officials of crimes against humanity
in relation to the country's land conflicts.
Twenty-four hours after the ICC report first aired, the
Prime Minister publicly called for Sonando's arrest. The Prime Minister also
called for Broma villagers to come forward, confess their involvement in the
plot, and be spared prison time. Several of them did, and presiding judge Chang
Sinath rewarded them by suspending their sentences - even though two were
originally identified as key ringleaders.
The remaining co-defendants all received prison sentences.
The irregularities did not stop with disproportionate sentencing.
The testimony of several in-court witnesses contradicted earlier statements
they had given to the police. But Judge Chang Sinath in her verdict favored the
police paperwork over in-court testimony.
There was no in-court testimony that supported a secession
plot or Sonando's alleged role in masterminding such a plot.
"This is a significant blow to freedom of speech in
Cambodia," said Mr. Yeng Virak, Executive Director of Community Legal Education
Center (CLEC). "That's not only because this verdict silences Mam Sonando - and
potentially impact on his radio station - but because it also has a chilling
effect on others."
This is not the first time Sonando has been targeted by the
government, but it's the first time he has been found guilty of criminal
charges. On January 31, 2003, months before Cambodia's third national election,
the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Sonando with announcing false
information, inciting people to discriminate, and inciting people to commit
crimes. That time, he was released after two weeks in detention.
Sonando was arrested again on October 11, 2005, and
eventually charged with defamation, incitement, and broadcasting false
information, for having broadcast an interview with an independent expert on
politically sensitive issues. That time, he was imprisoned for three months
before being released on bail in January 2006 following intense international
pressure and a coincidental visit by United States Assistant Secretary of State
for East Asia, Christopher Hill.
Should Sonando and his co-defendants appeal today's verdict,
we, the undersigned civil society organizations, call for the Cambodian Court
of Appeals to hear their case quickly, and to make a decision that conforms to
Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM)
Cambodia's Civil Servants Association (CICA)
Cambodian Food and Service Worker Federation (CFSWF)
Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC)
Cambodian League for
the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
Cambodian Worker Center for Development (CWCD)
Cambodian Youth Network (CYN)
Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC)
Community Legal Education Center (CLEC)
Equitable Cambodia (EC)
of Informal Economy Association (IDEA)