PHNOM PENH & WASHINGTON DC - Cambodian authorities sentenced Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando to 20 years in jail, on charges related to an alleged secessionist plot.
Rights advocates say there was little evidence in the case, which also saw jail sentences for 13 other people by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. All of them are accused of a conspiracy to establish a separatist zone in Kratie province.
However, rights workers say the case stems from a violent land protest in Kratie in May and was called for by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was angered by Mam Sonando’s talks with a US-based group that is highly critical of the government.
The verdict underscores an ongoing backslide in the country’s democratic reforms, in a climate where the courts are consistently jailing government critics, including rights workers, activists and journalists.
Expressing disappointment and concern, a US Embassy spokesman said the verdict “calls into question the protection of one’s basic human rights.”
The verdict came on Monday, just two days after Cambodia made a formal request to the UN to have a non-permanent seat on the Security Council.
Mam Sonando, 71, told VOA Khmer after the verdict he would “wait” to appeal the case. “And I am proud that I can continue to help the Cambodian people,” he said.
Beehive Radio carries daily Khmer-language news broadcasts from VOA and RFA, US government-funded international broadcasters based in Washington, DC.
Two judges spent more than two hours Monday reading the final verdict, which came out to about 45 pages. In it, they said they had found links between Mam Sonando and another suspect, Bun Ratha, who allegedly led the plot in the province and worked for Mam Sonando’s Association of Democrats. The judges also said they had found links with Soun Serey Ratha, the head of a US-based group called the Khmer People Power Movement. The judges said his meetings with the men amounted to a desire to topple the government and to incite villagers to the rally to the cause.
Bun Ratha, who has fled the country, was sentenced to 30 years in absentia.
Sok Sam Oeun, head of the Cambodian Defenders Project and Mam Sonando’s defense attorney, was left nearly speechless by the verdict, which was based on witness testimony and what appeared to be mostly circumstantial evidence.
“This [ruling] depends on how people see it,” he said. Mam Sonando had spoken “a few words” to Bun Ratha and Soun Serey Ratha, “and the court says this constituted incitement,” he said. “I don’t know either. So this sets a precedent for what are future incitements.”
Outside the court, supporters of Mam Sonando, many of them members of his Association of Democrats, demonstrated for his release.
US Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said the US is “disappointed and concerned” with the verdict. “While Cambodia has taken some steps forward on human rights issues, recurring issues like that of Mam Sonando threaten future progress,” he said in an e-mail.
Mam Sonando, who holds a French passport, has been in jail since his arrest in Phnom Penh in mid-July. French Embassy officials are awaiting an official response from the French Foreign Affairs Ministry before commenting on his case.
The Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties said in a joint statement the verdict demonstrated a lack of judicial independence by the court, which pursued the case after Prime Minister Hun Sen called for Mam Sonando’s arrest.
“This is a political institution aligned to political will,” Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said of the court. “To me, the verdict is clearly written by a politician. I really regret what they have written into the account.”
The jailing of Mam Sonando and the crackdown on the alleged plot coincides with other dubious cases at the court. This includes the jailing of two housing rights activists on charges they incited violence in demonstrations against two development projects in the capital. Rights advocates say they courts are increasingly using a new criminal code to prosecute government critics.
Monday’s verdict came two days after Cambodia’s foreign minister, Hor Namhong, addressed the UN Security Council in New York, requesting a seat there. Hor Namhong said Cambodia had experience in post-war development, “in particular in economic and social development and national reconciliation.”
Critics say the country needs to improve its rights record before it is allowed access to the Security Council.