Case against Mam Sonando must undergo a fair retrial

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and Media Defence Southeast Asia (MD-SEA) are gravely alarmed by the 20-year prison sentence imposed on Mr. Mam Sonando, 70, and owner and director of an independent radio station in Phnom Penh. We believe Mam Sonando is the victim of a grave injustice arising from his consistent opposition to the ruling party, as well as independent broadcasting of social and political issues plaguing the country through his radio station, Beehive (105 mhz. FM).

Mam was found guilty on 1 October by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court of violating six provisions (Articles 28, 456, 457, 464, 504 and 609) of the Cambodian Criminal Code of 2009, including  masterminding an alleged ‘secessionist plot’ of Broma village in the Kampong Damrei commune of the Chhlong district in Kratie province, northeastern Cambodia. He, along with 11 others, received varying sentences in connection with the plot, including a 30-year sentence granted in absentia to land rights activist Bun Ratha.

This is the third time Mam Sonando has been arrested, but the first time he has been convicted. This conviction and his earlier arrests in 2003 and 2005 are a clear indication that he has been consistently targeted by government.

Prior to the conviction, we note that observers have said that Mam’s links with the alleged movement remained unproven by evidence and testimony during the trial. In fact many have expected an acquittal of these absurd accusations. The sentencing and trial of Mam Sonando is politically motivated, and directly arises from public call by Prime Minister Hun Sen ordering his arrest after the Beehive broadcast the filing of a complaint against the government before International Criminal Court in the Hague, the Netherlands.

Even the alleged ‘secessionist’ plot of the Broma village seems preposterous, since alleged leaders of the plot who have ‘surrendered’ to authorities have admitted to only proposing an ‘autonomous zone’—and not separation—from the Kingdom of Cambodia. These alleged ‘ringleaders’ were spared from sentencing because of their confessions. And in our view, even if there was such a plot, such charges are only an attempt to cover-up a violent dispersal of the Broma villagers on 16 May 2012, which resulted in the killing of a 14-year old girl.

During the dispersal, hundreds of Cambodian police and soldiers, supported by a helicopter, stormed the Broma village in an attempt to evict residents to give way to a land concession of Casotim, a company involved in a long-running land dispute with Broma villagers.  Authorities opened fire on protesters resulting in the killing of Heng Chantha, 14. It is disturbing that there have been no reports of any investigation of the responsibility of security forces for the handing of this operation.

Prior to the sentencing, the arrest and detention of Mam Sonando have been problematic, with repeated denials of bail requests. Due consideration has not been given to his high profile role in society as a radio station owner, his advanced age, and health problems aggravated by being under detention—which should make him eminently eligible for bail.

And now at 70, Man Sonando’s prison sentence of 20-years serves a virtual death penalty on the renowned journalist and human rights defender.

We see the sentencing of Mam Sonando and 11 other persons as an open threat to both journalists delivering independent news coverage and political commentary, as well as to civil society, human rights and community organizations who are actively protesting legitimate social issues in Cambodia related to internationally-recognised human rights. The questionable trial and harsh penalties on this case happens at a crucial time as Cambodia prepares for national elections next year. It serves to stifle open debate on national issues within Cambodian civil society and media.

We therefore demand a retrial of the 12 accused in a fair judicial process consistent with international and Cambodian human rights norms on due process and judicial procedure.  And during this process, Mam Sonando must be granted his right to bail, in consideration of his advanced age and health concerns.

The sentence delivered to Mam Sonando and 11 other human rights defenders on 1 October represents the latest incident pointing to a severe deterioration in the situation of freedom of expression and human rights in general this year. Journalists and human rights defenders have become victims to harassment, threats, arbitrary arrests and violence, which run afoul of Cambodia’s commitments to international human rights norms.

The Cambodian Government must take immediate and concrete measures to reverse these disturbing developments in the human rights situation of the country, in order to boost its falling credibility before the international community.

(Ms.) Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Executive Director, Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

(Mr.) HR Dipendra, Executive Director, Media Defence Southeast Asia (MD-SEA)