Embattle independent radio station owner Mam Sonando is expected to be released today after the Appeal Court yesterday substantially reduced what many viewed as a politically motivated 20-year sentence on insurrection charges.
The decision comes eight months after Sonando was arrested for allegedly masterminding a secession plot in a small village.
At the prosecutor’s request, judges dropped the strongest charges against Sonando and replaced them with a lesser, forestry-related crime. His sentence was reduced to five years, with four years and four months of that sentence suspended, Judge Khun Leang said at yesterday morning’s verdict announcement.
“We have not found any evidence to prove that he masterminded a secession against the government,” he said.
Two other men who were convicted alongside Sonando – Kan Sovan, aka Chan Sovann, and Touch Siem, aka Touch Rin – and sentenced to three and five years, respectively, had their sentences reduced to 10 months and are also expected to be released today.
Judge Leang said the sentence reductions were granted due to Sonando’s age and lack of criminal background, and because Sovann and Rin were “low educated”.
The trio, along with a fourth man, Phoin Sroeurn, who did not appeal because his original sentence was 10 months, stood convicted on charges related to stoking a so-called secessionist movement in Kratie province.
In May, the government used claims of the movement to justify a violent mass eviction of hundreds of families in which a 14-year-old girl was shot dead by police. While authorities insisted such force was necessary to quash the effort to build a “state within a state”, many noted the families had long been locked in a land dispute with a powerful local rubber concessionaire and that the raid came shortly after the de facto ringleader, Bun Ratha, had staged a series of roadblocks protesting the land grab.
Over the course of a day and a half last week, defence attorneys sought to demonstrate what they called a complete lack of evidence of either the movement or the men’s role in it. Much of the case built against the three at the lower court came from testimony given by seven suspects, who saw their charges thrown out in exchange for the implicating material. Though summonsed, none of the men appeared during the appeal, and rights workers called the mass evasion likely proof the group had falsified information.
By the end of the hearing, even prosecutors appeared swayed, calling for the strongest charges – insurrection and inciting people to take up arms – to be dropped and replaced with an “occupation of forest” charge.
As police rushed him to a prison transport van following the announcement, a grinning Sonando told reporters he looked forward to seeing them at his Kien Svay home, which doubles as the Beehive Radio offices.
His lawyer, Sar Sovann, said he was disappointed by the court’s decision to levy forestry charges but thrilled the insurrection conviction had been dropped.
At the verdict announcement yesterday, the courtroom was packed to over-flowing with journalists, rights workers, and monitors from embassies of the Kingdom’s biggest donors. His case has been harshly criticised from the start, with personalities as noteworthy as US President Barack Obama calling for his release.
Sonando, who also holds French citizenship, has been receiving consular assistance, and his case was a topic of discussion when French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault met with Prime Minister Hun Sen in early February prior to the funeral of King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
The verdict announcement came just days after France granted an unprecedented $48 million in aid for Cambodia. The French Embassy declined to comment, but observers said the unusual amount of international and local scrutiny doubtless affected the court’s decision.
Like Sonando’s lawyers, rights monitors called the outcome a mixed success – noting that the final resolution appeared no less political than the initial case.
“Today’s decision is a political solution. I continue to appeal for due process”, said CCHR President OuVirak.
“[Levying] fresh accusations does not follow due process and gives the accused no opportunity to exculpate themselves.”
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator at rights group Licadho, pointed out that though Sonando was to be released imminently, he would remain under the court’s jurisdiction until the five-year sentence expired.
“This is a pressure on him, because he is innocent,” he said.
Amnesty International, which labelled Sonando a prisoner of conscience, called the release a positive step “with caveats”.
“There are, of course, concerns. Mam Sonando should never have been in prison in the first place. The original charges – and indeed the new charges – again seem completely baseless,” said Cambodia researcher Rupert Abbott. “Lets hope this represents a shifting of what we’ve seen in Cambodia, where we’ve seen this assault on freedom of expression; let's hope we see that halt.”
Outside the Appeal Court gates yesterday, hundreds of Sonando’s supporters massed, cheering as news of the verdict trickled out the courtroom.
“I am so appreciative the court released him,” said Keo Ven, a protester who had travelled from Prey Veng to witness the verdict, before breaking down into tears.
While legal experts bemoaned the lack of complete judicial resolution, family members said they were simply relieved their ordeal had ended.
For the second time in a week, Sok Kea, the wife of Touch Rin, spent hours travelling from Kratie’s remote Pro Ma village to attend the hearing. Holding the baby who had only just been born when her husband was arrested last year, Kea said she was ready to forget the nightmare of the past 10 months.
“We will no longer have the difficulties we have been facing once my husband is free,” she said quietly. “We will return to the farm and move on.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ABBY SEIFF