Cambodia’s Court of Appeals rejected ailing dissident radio station owner Mam Sonando’s request for bail on Friday, citing “concerns for public order” in a decision that drew condemnation from local rights groups.
The Beehive Radio station director, who was convicted in October of masterminding a secessionist plot on charges that critics say are politically motivated, plans to appeal the bail decision, his wife and lawyer said.
During the two-hour hearing, presiding judge Khun Leanmeng said his bail was denied due to concerns about “social security and public order” and that Mam Sonando, who carries French and Cambodian passports, might flee the country.
The 71-year-old radio station director promised not to flee the country if released and pleaded for clemency, saying his health is deteriorating and he has been losing one kilogram (half a pound) a month in detention.
“I will not flee to show that I am innocent, I didn’t commit any crime,” he told the judges, while hundreds of supporters gathered outside the courthouse in Phnom Penh amid heavy security.
Police prevented supporters—including diplomats, rights workers monitoring the case, and some 300 villagers whom Mam Sonando had assisted in a land eviction case—from entering the court building.
The activist, who denies the charges against him, has filed an appeal of his conviction and had applied for release on bail until it was heard.
A court date has not yet been set for his appeal against his conviction.
But in the meantime, he will be taking an appeal on the bail decision to the Supreme Court, his lawyer Sar Sowath said.
“I will immediately appeal this decision to have the Supreme Court reexamine this case,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Mam Sonando’s wife Din Sophanara said she and the lawyer would keep working for his freedom.
“I continue to hope that the court will release him,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Rights groups 'disappointed'
A Cambodian human rights coalition monitoring the activist’s case issued a statement Friday saying its members were “disappointed” in the court’s bail decision and concerned about political interference in the case.
“We are concerned about the political interference with the judicial ruling of this case,” the statement by the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) said.
“CHRAC, therefore, strongly urges the Royal Government of Cambodia and the Cambodian higher courts to overturn the conviction of Mam Sonando so that he can be freed and continue contributing to his work on democracy and human rights in Cambodia.”
Mam Sonando’s case, which U.S. President Barack Obama raised with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a historic visit to Cambodia last month, has drawn criticism from international rights groups who say the case against him is politically motivated.
Mam Sonando, who is also the director of the Association of Democrats, has been arrested twice before for his political activities and for "defaming" the government.
In October, he was given 20 years in prison for orchestrating a secessionist plot tied to a land dispute in Kratie province, where a mass occupation of land and bloody clashes in May triggered a security clampdown.
His arrest in July followed a nationally broadcast speech in which Hun Sen insinuated that the activist should be taken into custody for having led a "secession" plot and attempting to establish "a state within a state."
UN Rights Envoy
Mam Sonando’s bail refusal came days after the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia visited the activist in detention while on an eight-day fact-finding mission to assess the human rights situation in the country.
In a statement on Friday, Subedi said he was “deeply concerned” about the situation of freedom of expression in the country and urged the government to do a better job of protecting land rights and adopt stronger laws to ensure the independence of the judiciary.
“A properly functioning judiciary is the backbone of democracy and human rights. A number of representations have been made to me during this mission about the independence and capacity of the judiciary,” he said.
The envoy’s eight-day visit ended without a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who did “not have time” for the rights envoy, government spokesman Phay Siphan said Friday.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.