PHNOM PENH & WASHINGTON DC- The US government on Tuesday called for the immediate release of embattled Beehive Radio operator Mam Sonando, who was handed a 20-year prison sentence Monday for his alleged role in a secessionist plot.
The case against Mam Sonando is widely viewed as politically motivated, for his criticisms of the ruling government and Prime Minister Hun Sen. Beehive Radio is one of the only independently operated radio stations in the country and carries programming from the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, among others.
The hefty prison sentence underscores a continued backslide of Cambodia’s democratic reforms, with the courts increasingly silencing government critics through criminal cases against rights monitors, activists and journalists.
“We call on the Cambodian government to release Mam Sonando immediately, to ensure that its court system is free from political influence, and to reaffirm its commitment to guaranteeing its citizens’ basic human rights,” Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, said in a statement Tuesday. “A number of observers in Cambodia have noted that the charges against him appear to have been politically-motivated, based on his frequent criticism of the government.”
In condemning the sentencing, handed down as a huge crowd of Beehive supporters amassed outside the court Monday, the US joined a chorus of international and local condemnation for Mam Sonando’s detention.
The courts in Cambodia are widely viewed as a political instrument of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, susceptible to both political persuasion and bribery. A government spokesman defended the court’s verdict, saying the ruling government had not had a hand in the case.
Disappointment of the verdict and its implications, however, has been widespread internationally and locally.
“I am shocked, saddened and disappointed,” said Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “This is a big step backward because his imprisonment does not end right here. It sends a fearful message to activists throughout the country.”
Mam Sonando, who is 71, was accused of collaboration with the Khmer People Power Movement, a US-based group that is highly critical of the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and of orchestrating the alleged plot through his Association of Democrats.
However, in archival footage of a US trip earlier this year, obtained by VOA Khmer, Mam Sonando time and again tells assembled Cambodian-Americans at multiple venues he has no interest in joining the People Power Movement or in violent revolution. Instead, he said, his interest in them is journalistic.
Earlier this year, the People Power Movement submitted a complaint to the International Court at the Hague accusing Hun Sen of human rights abuses, a move observers say may have angered the premier and initiated the court case against Mam Sonando. Shortly after his meetings with the group in the US, which were broadcast on YouTube, Hun Sen began calling for Mam Sonando’s arrest.
“I cannot be a part of the People Power Movement,” Mam Sonando told a group of Cambodian-Americans in Lynnwood, Wa., on March 17, “because I live in the Kingdom of Cambodia, in which we have the king and the constitution.”
In the March 17 speech, Mam Sonando also describes the role of the Association of Democrats, “to support non-violent solutions” to Cambodia’s problems. “I support only fair play, and every solution must be based on national interest,” he says.
In a speech to Cambodian-Americans at another event in Washington state, on March 18, he described his group as “totally different from the People Power Movement, because one is overseas and one is inside the country.” “In the country, I have to respect the constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” he said. “I cannot say what this movement does. Therefore, our work is different.”
In Oregon on March 25, he said in a speech his Association of Democrats “is not for political purposes.”
“But the law does not prohibit me from meeting this or that person,” he said. “As a private citizen who lives in a country that has adopted a pluralistic democracy, meeting anyone is just a normal practice. I am not just the president of the Association of Democrats, I am also the director of Beehive station. So I am a journalist. And once we talk about the role of journalist, I can also meet a thief to ask him why he likes stealing from people. I can also meet a traitor to ask him why he likes giving our land to Vietnam. This is my right.”
In Long Beach on April 1, Mam Sonando told a group he is against dictatorship, human rights violations and corruption. And violence.
“Using violence, even if it were legal, we should not resort to it,” he said. “This is my view. There should not be a rebellion that leads to killing, like during the Khmer Rouge period or in Tunisia or Egypt or other Arab countries that saw success. To me, I don’t support that, because I want to use legal means. Legal means are through elections.”
Defense attorneys for Mam Sonando said they submitted the recordings to the court in his defense, but it is unclear whether the court heard the tape or used it in the decision.
The Phnom Penh court on Monday found Mam Sonando guilty of collusion in the alleged secessionist plot in Kratie province. Rights groups say the accusations stem from a violent protest against a land grab in the province in May, in the province’s Chhlong district, which was followed by a crackdown by security forces that left a 14-year-old girl shot dead.
The French government said it is following the case closely, as Mam Sonando also carries a French passport.
Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA Khmer in an interview that the heavy jail sentence carried an “implied threat to journalists anywhere in Cambodia, that they are no longer really free to speak.”
“This is a real blow,” he said. “I mean, it’s a clearly rendered indicator that the government is really determined to silence anyone who is critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen or his administration. Cambodian media has never really been free under the Hun Sen government.”
Karin Deutch Karleakar, a senior researcher for Freedom House, told VOA Khmer the sentence would likely have a “chilling effect” on media in Cambodia and would likely upset international donors. Freedom House rates Cambodia’s media environment “not free.”
“You know that is really basically a warning shot to anyone else who would be thinking about any type of criticism of the government,” she said.
To many, the Mam Sonando case is a prime example of how the courts are subtly manipulated by government officials, especially under the new penal code, which criminalizes defamation and opens journalists and others to attacks from powerful political or business interests.
“Mam Sonando was one of the few remaining journalists willing to tell the truth about what’s going in Cambodia,” Josie Cohen, a campaigner at the UK-based Global Witness, said. What is happening, she said, is “a state-sponsored land grab that has seen an area the size of Wales taken from small farmers by agricultural companies in just four years. The country’s international donors must condemn this sentence and demand the government end its systematic silencing of anyone who dares to speak up for the thousands who have been forced off their land.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, who defended the integrity of the court, said Mam Sonando can appeal his case.