Calling the verdict a ”serious blow to freedom of expression and judicial independence,” The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), strongly condemns the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Cambodia for its conviction of independent radio station owner Mam Sonando Monday, to a 20-year jail sentence for allegedly inciting a purported “secessionist movement” in the Kratie province in Cambodia. The regional human rights organization representing 49 non-governmental organizations across Asia says the guilty verdict was made despite the lack of credible evidence, bringing to question the political motivations and the independence of the Cambodian judiciary. Amnesty International called the sentence “outrageous.”
Sonando was detained on July 15th 2012 after Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly called for his arrest following a radio broadcast of Sonando’s report on the Khmer People Power Movement’s communication of allegations of crimes against humanity committed by the Cambodian government to the International Criminal Court on June 25th 2012. He was then accused of masterminding the purported “secessionist” movement in Kratie province, which was in actuality a land dispute in which villagers were forcibly evicted that resulted in the killing a 14-year-old girl.
Several co-defendants who were charged together with Sonando were also convicted, although two of them who had confessed to the allegations had their sentences suspended. Prime Minister Hun Sen had earlier publicly stated that those who confessed would be spared from charges.
“The court ruling sends out a chilling message to human rights activists, journalists, and all independent voices who exercise freedom of speech and expression in Cambodia that critical and dissenting voices are not tolerated in the country,” said Yap Swee Seng, FORUM-ASIA’s Executive Director.
The case of Sonando is part of a wider ongoing attack against human rights activists, particularly those linked to the struggle for land rights. Yesterday, on October 1st, four individuals – Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) activists Pen Bonnar and Chhay Thy, Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Ou Virak, and Radio Free Asia journalist Sok Ratha – were ordered to appear before the Ratanakirri Provincial Court on October 1th 2012 for questioning on charges of incitement in relation to another land dispute in the Ratanakirri province. Last month, land and housing rights activists, Yorm Bopha of the Boeung Kak Lake community, and Tim Sakmony of the Borei Keila community, were arrested on September 4th and 5th respectively, on dubious charges. The two women human rights defenders are currently in pre-trial detention.
“The conviction of Sonando and the wider attacks against critical and dissenting voices in Cambodia in recent months demonstrate the Cambodian government’s repeated and total disregard of its international commitments and legal obligations to uphold the right to freedom of expression as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a party,” said Yap.
Cambodia is increasingly seeking international prominence: on October 18th it will apply for membership for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It also currently chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a time when the regional grouping is to adopt an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in November.
“The Cambodian government has failed to fulfill even its most basic international obligations that it has voluntarily signed on to, but yet it plans to play a much larger and more important role in the international community. This is a demonstration of hypocrisy by a government that appears not to subscribe to the rule of law,” said Mr. Yap.
Mam Sonando has already expressed his intention to appeal against the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s verdict.
“The Cambodian Court of Appeals must ensure that the appeal hearing does not end up in a farce as it did at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. The evidences that were brought against Sonando have clearly failed to prove the charges against him, and this ought to be reflected by the Court of Appeals should the case be appealed by Sonando,” Mr. Yap added.
The group urged the Cambodian government to stop its ongoing intimidation and threats against all human rights defenders and journalists, and ensure that it fulfills its international legal obligation to uphold and respect the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
Journalists and activists in Cambodia are under increasing threat; on September 11th, a journalist was found dead with ax wounds in the trunk of his car, less than a week after he had exposed an alleged military connection to the illicit timber trade. The Committee to Protect Journalists and other rights groups have demanded that they Cambodian authorities immediately investigate the murder.