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With Beehive Station Owner Jailed, a School Goes Unbuilt

Mam Sonando, center, a local radio station owner, is escorted by court security personnel as he arrives at appeals court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, March 5, 2013. Hundreds of supporters on Tuesday gathered to demand the release of Mam Sonando, one of Cambodia’s most prominent human rights defenders, who was sentenced in Oct. 2012 to 20 years in prison on insurrection charges.(AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

KAMPONG CHAM - The parents of some 300 students in Kampong Cham province are calling for the release of jailed Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando, who had been raising funds to build a school in their village before his arrest in July.

Mam Sonando, 71, owns Beehive Radio, which broadcasts Voice of America programming, and is the head of a civic group called the Association of Democrats. He is widely considered innocent of charges related to fomenting a secessionist movement in Kratie province last year, charges that rights groups say came only after he publicly criticized Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Parents say he has been instrumental in developing the local community and helping the poor in Kampong Cham’s Prek Koy commune, Kang Meas district.

“This village does not have a school,” said Soth Sam Ath, a 60-year-old mother of five. “Children go to study west of the village by crossing a river, and it’s far away. If the school here is completely built, the children would be very happy.”

The cement school building is nearly completed and was authorized by the government, about 50 kilometers east of Phnom Penh, villagers say. It was funded through the Association of Democrats and Mam Sonando.

Pal Mom, a 70-year-old farmer with 10 grandchildren in the village, said he was concerned about the fate of the school and of Mam Sonando.

“I wish to appeal to the international community to help Mam Sonando to be released very soon,” he said. “So then he can help build the school.”

Houn Phanary, deputy secretary-general of the Association of Democrats, said Mam Sonando had wanted to build the school at the request of villagers, whose children have a hard time reaching an alternate site. High tides raise water levels, and sometimes children would fall in the water, she said.

Loeun Thorn, 65, a grass-roots activist for the association here, called Mam Sonando a “hero.”

“If Cambodia had many more like him, it would never weaken at all,” Loeun Thorn said. “I think it would progress no less than foreign countries.”

Mam Sonando is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence on charges related to the alleged secessionist plot. Rights groups say a government crackdown in Kratie province in May 2012, which left one young girl dead, was against villagers angered at a land deal there, and not against an alleged separatist movement.

In an Appeals Court hearing March 6, the court prosecutor recommended some of the charges against Mam Sonando be dropped. The Appeals Court is expected to release a decision on the case later this week.