A Cambodian appeals court yesterday cleared a prominent government critic of a secessionist plot, slashing his 20-year jail term and ordering his release from prison at the weekend.
Radio station owner Mam Sonando, who has dual Cambodian-French citizenship, was convicted in October last year on charges including insurrection and inciting people to take up arms against the state.
Sonando, who denies the charges and has been in custody since last July, was accused of involvement in an alleged plot to establish an autonomous region in eastern Kratie Province.
Rights groups decry the charges as baseless and accuse the government of seeking to justify a harsh crackdown on a land dispute in the province in May last year, when a teenage girl was shot dead by security forces clashing with demonstrators.
The appeals court overturned the convictions against 72-year-old Sonando, saying he should instead serve only eight months of a new five-year sentence on new lesser charges on account of his old age. The rest of the sentence has been suspended. Judges convicted him of instigating the illegal clearing and occupation of a forest, but said he will be released tomorrow, having already served his eight months.
Rights activists and hundreds of Sonando’s supporters who have rallied outside the court welcomed the ruling, but expressed concern at the new charges against him.
“We welcome Mam Sonando’s imminent release, which is a step in the right direction for freedom of expression in Cambodia,” Amnesty International’s Rupert Abbott said.
However, “the introduction of new charges at such a late stage raises concerns about the fairness of the proceedings” Abbott said, adding that “the suspended sentence may be designed to silence Mam Sonando.”
Sonando heads the campaign group the Association of Democrats, and his independent Beehive station broadcasts programs critical of the government.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled the country since 1985 and has vowed to remain in power until he is 90 years old.
Activists say land conflicts are Cambodia’s most pressing human rights issue. Protests have intensified and campaigners say the authorities are increasingly cracking down on dissent.