Veteran Cambodian Journalist Jailed for 20 years

Mam Sonando has been found guilty of sedition against Hun Sen’s government.

A prominent Cambodian broadcaster has been jailed for 20 years on Monday after Prime Minister Hun Sen alleged he was part of a secessionist plot. This move has outraged human rights and press freedom groups who claim serious doubts now exist over the independence of this country’s judiciary.

Seventy-one-year-old Mam Sonando, the Director of Beehive Radio and President of the Democratic Association, was led to jail today amid tight security following a four-day hearing which convicted him of crimes including insurrection and inciting people to take up arms against the state. He was also fined 10 million riel ($2,500), about ten times the average Cambodian worker’s annual salary.

Amnesty classified Mam Sonando as a prisoner of conscience and described the verdict and sentencing as “absolutely outrageous”.

Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said the verdict “raises severe doubts about the impartiality and independence of the Court” while noting the government was obligated to protect the rights of its citizens.

“This is especially important in view of the Cambodian elections in 2013.”

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Elections are due to be held by mid-2013 and land grabbing is emerging as the biggest political headache to confront Hun Sen in years. Among the Prime Minister’s fiercest of critics was Mam Sonando, who also focused on officials who had overseen forced evictions and land grabs by large corporations.

Among these were protests linked to a long-running land dispute in Kratie province involving a Russian company, Casotim, which won a 15,000-hectare economic land concession to set up a rubber plantation.

Villagers in Pro Ma, however, refused to budge from the concession. In May hundreds of armed police stormed the area, attempting to evict about 1,000 families. The authorities opened fire and 14-year-old Heng Chantha was killed.

Following the death of Heng Chantha, police arrested villagers and alleged they were secessionists. The government claimed that the so-called secessionists were plotting with the Democratic Association led by Mam Sonando. Hun Sen called for Mam Sonando's arrest, claiming he was leading a plot to overthrow his government.

At the recent trial, 13 other people were convicted in addition to Mam Sonando, and sentenced to terms ranging from 10 months to 30 years. Five were tried in absentia.

The Cambodian Council for Human Rights (CCHR) stressed that no evidence had emerged that connected Mam Sonando with the May 2012 eventswiki in Pro Ma, and that a gross travesty of justice had occurred.

“Given the lack of evidence, the only rational, reasonable and legal thing the court could have done… would be to acquit Mam Sonando of all charges against him and set him free immediately,” said the CCHR in a press release.

The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) backed this position. In a statement, the organization added that rights groups had repeatedly derided the authorities’ claims of an attempt at secession, and that legal experts said that there was no evidence to link Mam Sonando to the alleged secessionist movement or to prove such a movement even exists. Trial monitors condemned the verdict against Mam Sonando outright. “The OPCC has seen nothing to [cast] doubt any of these conclusions,” the statement read.

“Mam Sonando’s detention and imprisonment mark a significant moment in the environment for media freedoms in Cambodia,”continued OPCC President Robert Carmichael said. “It is hard to escape the conclusion that these charges against Cambodia’s most prominent independent broadcaster are designed to muzzle the media from carrying out its function.”

Hundreds of supporters had gathered outside. As he was taken from the court, Mam Sonando told reporters: “I am happy that I have helped the nation.”