Activist Mam Sonando’s Glimmer of Hope

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Activist Mam Sonando’s Glimmer of Hope

Cambodian land activist Mam Sonando awaits a verdict on his appeal to overturn charges of insurrection.

Cambodian prosecutors have offered jailed broadcaster Mam Sonando a glimmer of hope. Mam Sonando appeared before an appeals court this week to appeal his conviction and 20-year sentence for plotting to create a “state within a state.”

Hundreds of supporters gathered outside the court of appeal yesterday as prosecutors asked the court to drop very serious charges leveled against Mam Sonando, which include insurrection and inciting people to take up arms against the state, in exchange for the less serious charges of obstructing authority and land grabbing.

Rights groups applauded the move as positive. However, any decision remains in the hands of the bench, which is slated to hand down its decision on his appeal and the prosecutors’ request next week.

The Diplomat has closely followed the Mam Sonando case since he was arrested last year after government troops evicted thousands of villagers from their homes in Pro Ma village in Cambodia’s north, claiming they were sent in to crackdown on a separatist movement. A 14-year-old girl was shot dead in the process.

Mam Sonando, a dual French-Cambodian citizen, was charged after Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed he was involved in a secessionist plot. Villagers from Pro Ma and a long list of rights groups said that this was simply not true.

Tried alongside Mam Sonando, co-accused Chan Sovann and Touch Siem (a.k.a. Touch Rin) were jailed for three and five years, respectively. They said that they were forced into signing confessions with their thumbprints. Neither understood what they had signed because they are illiterate.

Their plight won worldwide attention after U.S. President Barack Obama raised the issue with Hun Sen on the sidelines of a regional summit in Phnom Penh last November.

However, if the judges fail to overturn the conviction, Mam Sonando will have to make his case again in a lower court. Ou Virak, President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told The Diplomat that even if Mam Sonando is found guilty of the lesser charges he still faces the prospect of six to 11 years behind bars.

The past 12 months have been difficult for human rights activists and environmentalists in the region. In Cambodia, environmentalist Chhut Vutty was killed, while in Laos, Sombath Somphone, a prominent campaigner for rural people, has gone missing. Meanwhile, Thai environmentalist Prajob Nao-opas was shot dead last month.

Supporters of Sombath Somphone believe he is still alive, while the Thai and Cambodian governments have been sharply rebuked for failing to protect those who spoke for the environment and rural dwellers facing pressure from large corporations and their factories.