Mistrial of a radio station owner

IMPUNITY CASE PROFILE

[Original title: Mistrial of a radio station owner in Cambodia]

cambodia_cchr_mam_sonando_159Mam Sonando, 70, is the founder of Beehive Radio, one of only three independent radio stations in Cambodia. He is also the director of the Democrats Association, and holds both Cambodian and French citizenship.

Mam Sonando was arrested at his home on 15 July under five articles of the Cambodian Penal Code, including charges of insurrection and incitement to take up arms against the state. He was detained at the Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh and denied bail, despite bouts of illness resulting from poor conditions. His trial took place in Phnom Penh from 11 to 14 September, along with 11 other accused, including three who were absent.

Despite a distinct lack of evidence against him, Mam Sonando was found guilty of all charges on 1 October, and was sentenced to a combined sentence of 20 years in prison. An appeal has been filed, but a date for the hearing has yet to be set.

The charges against Mam Sonando were in connection with a long-running land dispute in Kratie province involving a 15,000-hectare land concession to a Russian company, Casotim.

Earlier, on 16 May this year, hundreds of armed police and military police stormed Pro Ma village, in an effort to remove around 1,000 families living in the concession area. When villagers refused to move from their land, the authorities then opened fire, causing the death of a 14-year-old girl, Heng Chantha.

After the incident, police arrested a number of individuals from the area who were accused of being secessionists seeking to gain independence from Cambodia. Government claimed that the so-called secessionists had been plotting with the Democrats Association, led by Mam Sonando.

On 26 June, Prime Minister Hun Sen made a speech calling for the arrest of Mam Sonando, accusing him of leading a plot to overthrow the government and attempting to establish a state within a state.

The Prime Minister’s speech came the day after Beehive Radio broadcast a report in the filing of a complaint to the International Criminal Court accusing Hun Sen’s government of crimes against humanity.

Hun Sen’s speech after the broadcast, as well as the lack of evidence to link Mam Sonando to the so-called insurrection, led to the belief that Mam Sonando’s  arrest is politically motivated, and is linked to his role as a radio station owner.

Lack of evidence

During the trial, no concrete evidence was produced by the prosecution to link Mam Sonando to the incident in Kratie. He was not even in Cambodia at that time.

Trial observers noted that the co-accused and witnesses were hesitant in their testimonies, which often differed from their earlier statements during the investigation in Kratie. Most of the accused also did not know Mam Sonando.

Moreover, none of the witnesses or co-accused had seen the use of the weapons produced as evidence by the prosecution. The lack of injuries sustained by security forces during the incident at Pro Ma village, suggests that these weapons confiscated by authorities were only used for hunting and farming.

Based on the evidence presented during the trial, the Pro Ma villagers were most probably peacefully protecting their land rights. There has also been no investigation into the shooting dead of Heng Chantha, with the authorities calling this an accident.

The prosecution’s strongest evidence linking Mam Sonando had been speculative and circumstantial, including a meeting with villagers in Phnom Penh, and the previous membership of Bun Ratha, the so-called leader of the secession, to the Democrats Association. They also included past speeches of Mam Sonando at several conferences in the past held by the Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM), an association that calls on Cambodians not to recognize the government, and which filed the ICC complaint in June.

Third arrest

This is not the only time that Mam Sonando has been targeted for disseminating unbiased news and critical opinion, through Beehive Radio, which was founded in 1995.

Mam Sonando spent two weeks in prison in 2003 following the broadcast of a telephone call to Beehive Radio, which the government deemed as an incitement to commit crimes and to discrimination, and “giving false information to the public”.

Mam Sonando was imprisoned again for three months in 2005 on charges of defamation and incitement, following an interview relating to the planned border demarcation treaty with Vietnam.

Repercussions

The arbitrary imprisonment and questionable conviction of Mam Sonando is in breach of both domestic and international law, and shrinks the country’s space for free speech. It also indicates the misuse of the judiciary. His conviction indicates that fair trial principles were not adhered to, including presumption of innocence and proving guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

The trial’s outcome points to the long-standing observation of the lack of independence of Cambodia’s judges and prosecutors, most of whom are members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). But in response to criticism of the judgment, the government accused foreigners of trying to put pressure on a sovereign court.

Furthermore, Beehive Radio is an important source of unbiased news in a country where media is dominated by supporters of the CPP. The timidity of Cambodian media, where the norm is of widespread self-censorship means that many Cambodians are not made aware of critical information on the situation of their country.

For over 10 years, Beehive has also been selling airtime to US government-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice Of America (VOA) to air their Khmer-language news and commentary.

Mam Sonando’s wife said that, after her husband’s arrest, the radio station has gone into a financial crisis. The conviction of Mam Sonando affects not only his role as a media service provider, but also diminishes an important source of and platform for independent information and opinion.

Local and international support

During the trial of Mam Sonando, hundreds of people gathered near the Court to show their support and protest his arrest.

In the run up to the trial, the Democrats Association organized a petition for Mam Sonando’s release. Members recently gathered to present the petition at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. The petition was said to have collected more than 140,000 thumbprints.

CCHR has been active in advocating for the release of Mam Sonando, including through the preparation of briefing papers to raise awareness on the case and related human rights issues.

International groups have spoken out in support of Mam Sonando, who for example was named a ‘prisoner of conscience’  by Amnesty International. The French and US governments and the European Union have also raised their concerns about the guilty verdict through public statements. (contributed by Cambodian Centre for Human Rights)