Updated at 4:10 p.m. EST on 2013-03-14
After a deluge of local and international criticism, Cambodia ordered the release Thursday of veteran journalist Mam Sonando, overturning his conviction for allegedly masterminding a “secessionist” plot.
"I thank all the Khmer people and everyone who has supported my struggle to find justice," Mam Sonando, who has rejected the charges and has been in custody since last July, shouted to reporters in Phnom Penh while being brought back to Prey Sar Prison after an appeals court announced the verdict.
The 71-year-old owner of the independent Beehive Radio station is due for release on Friday.
He was convicted by a lower court in October 2012 of leading a secession plot against the Cambodian government and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
But prosecutors made an odd request during a court hearing on his appeal last week to drop the two most serious charges against him—insurrection and incitement to take up arms against the state.
The Court of Appeals on Thursday dropped the secession-related charges and convicted Mam Sonando on a new charge of illegal logging under the Forestry Law and also reduced his sentence to five years, with eight months—or time served—in prison and the rest suspended.
Appeals Court Judge Khun Leang Meng ruled that there was no evidence to support a lower court's finding that Mam Sonando had links to any revolt and cited his age as a reason for the reduction in his prison term.
“He was not involved with any riot, but he incited villagers to destroy state forest,” he said in reading the verdict.
Mam Sonando’s lawyer Sar Sovan welcomed the dropped charges but said the new illegal logging charge was unfounded and that he will consider filing a lawsuit with the Supreme Court.
“The prosecutor has changed the charges. There is no forest [involved in the case], it is a land concession [issue] and there is no forest. I am not happy,” he said.
The sentences of co-defendants Kan Sovann and Touch Ream were upheld at three and five years, respectively, but the remainder of their sentences were also suspended, with the judge citing their “low level of education” as a reason for leniency. They have already spent 10 months in prison.
Based on the sentence reduction, the three are expected to be released Friday, rights groups said, cautiously welcoming the court's decision.
They stressed that Cambodia faces a long road to rehabilitate its democracy ahead of national elections in July.
“We welcome the court’s decision to release Mam Sonando and his co-defendants, but we cannot say that justice was truly served,” said Yeng Virak, Executive Director of Community Legal Education Center (CLEC).
“They are still convicted men. The convictions are still unsupported by any evidence, and the intimidation effects of this case will linger for years to come.”
Mass land occupation
Mam Sonando was accused and convicted of plotting to establish an autonomous region in Cambodia’s eastern Kratie province following a mass occupation of land that triggered a security crackdown and bloody clashes in May.
The clashes occurred after some 1,000 village families refused a government order to vacate state land they had used for farming and which activists said had been awarded as a concession to a Russian firm planning to set up a rubber plantation.
A 14-year-old girl, Heng Chantha, was shot dead by government forces during the clashes.
Authorities have since refused to investigate Heng Chantha’s death, calling it an accident.
“That is perhaps the greatest injustice regarding the Kratie events,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion & Defense of Human Rights (Licadho).
"Mam Sonando and his co-defendants have spent months in prison on fabricated charges, but Heng Chantha’s killer has not spent a single day in prison. The government has not even investigated the killing,” she said.
Cambodian authorities had faced intense international and domestic pressure to release Mam Sonando, who has Cambodian-French dual citizenship, with U.S. President Barack Obama and French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault among those who called for his freedom.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Thursday that the U.S. was "looking forward" to Mam Sonando's release.
"We welcome the Phnom Penh appellate court decision to dismiss charges of secession against Mam Sonando," the spokesperson said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We support freedom of expression and those who seek to peacefully exercise that right and welcome effort by the Royal Government of Cambodia to address human rights challenges. We encourage the Royal Government of Cambodia to work towards a more transparent and fair judiciary, free from interference and influence."
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is also under pressure to allow exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return to the country to participate in the upcoming election.
“The release of Mam Sonando and his co-defendants is an important step toward rehabilitating Cambodia’s democracy, but the international community should note that the leader of the opposition party remains in exile,” said Vorn Pao, President of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA).
“That issue looms large for the coming elections," he said.
Rights groups charge that Cambodian courts are frequently used to imprison or intimidate government critics such as Mam Sonando and Sam Rainsy.
Sam Rainsy, who is living in France after being convicted of offenses linked to a protest over border demarcation with Vietnam in a case he says is politically motivated, faces a 12-year prison sentence if he returns to Cambodia.
Mam Sonando’s Beehive Radio is one of the few media outlets in Cambodia airing independent news, including coverage of opposition and minority political parties, and carries programming by RFA.
Reported by So Chivi for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun and Sum Sok Ry. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Rachel Vandenbrink.