PHNOM PENH - Phnom Penh Municipal Court held a second day of hearings Wednesday against Beehive Radio operator Mam Sonando, who is being charged with leading a secessionist movement in Kratie province.
Witnesses for the defense told the court Mam Sonando’s Association of Democrats was not involved in a separatist movement, but had been dedicated to teaching villagers more about democracy.
The government says a violent clash between villagers and security forces in Kratie in May was due to the incitement of a separatist movement, but critics of this view say villagers were angered by a land grab there.
Witnesses for the prosecution say the association was forcing people to join it in the province and promising plots of lands to those who did. Other witnesses told the court that a man named Bun Ratha, who remains at large, was involved in leading the villagers in the clash.
Wednesday’s hearing was held amid tight security, with crowds of protesters gathering for the second day to demand Mam Sonando’s acquittal and release.
Chea Bamrong, vice president of the Association of Democrats, told the court that the group taught villagers the principals of democracy but had always respected the rule of law and was not opposed to the Cambodian government. Mam Sonando had never even visited Kampong Damrei district, in Kratie, and had not led a movement there. Mam Sonando, who is 71, was not in the country when the clashes took place, Chea Bamrong told the court.
Mam Sonando also testified on his own behalf. The court’s had expected around 100 witnesses in the case, but in the end heard from nearly 40. Ten of them appeared on Wednesday.
Chea Chin, a former village chief from the area and a witness for the prosecution, said Bun Ratha and his subordinates pushed villagers to become members of the Association of Democrats and promised them plots of land in return. The association set up checkpoints outside of villages and refused admittance to the area of people who were not members. Villagers were also forced to pay a land tax of about $1.25 per hectare within areas under the association’s control, he said. He never saw Mam Sonando, he said, but in a meeting at a pagoda in his village, Bun Ratha held up a picture of Mam Sonando as he described the association.
Rights workers have said the government is providing little physical evidence to support its claims against Mam Sonando. But not all witnesses have been heard at the court.