A court in Phnom Penh on Monday ordered the head of a Cambodian radio station imprisoned pending his trial over a massive land dispute with the authorities, as more than 100 of his supporters gathered outside the court building calling for his release.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigative judge Sem Sakola said Mam Sonando should be locked up in Prey Sar Prison immediately following his first court appearance since his Sunday arrest that has been condemned by human rights groups.
The government has accused the director of FM station 105, also known as Beehive Radio, of orchestrating a mass occupation of land in Broma village in Kratie province’s Chhlong district that triggered a security crackdown and bloody clashes in May.
Mam Sonando’s defense attorney, Cambodian Defenders Project Director Sok Sam Oeun, said the radio chief, in his 60s, faces a lengthy prison term if he is found guilty.
“Mam Sonando is likely to face between seven and 15 years in jail if he is convicted,” he said.
Sok Sam Oeun said that Mam Sonando, who also heads the nongovernmental organization Association of Democrats, was arrested and charged on the basis of a warrant issued by a prosecutor for the Kratie provincial court.
The Kratie court had issued the warrant on July 2 but it could not be served on him because he was abroad.
Mam Sonando was charged under Articles 28, 456, 457, 464, 504, and 609 of Cambodia’s Penal Code with disobeying and obstructing public officials, and inciting villagers to take up arms against authorities.
The charges all carry significant prison terms. A conviction under article 464 alone could be punishable by 15-30 years imprisonment.
Call for release
During the course of the hearing on Monday, more than 100 supporters, made up largely of members of the Association of Democrats and other rights groups, held a protest in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court calling for Mam Sonando’s release.
The group of protesters held photos of the station chief and shouted slogans including: “Mam Sonando is innocent” and “He was only helping the poor.”
Among the crowd was Mam Sonando’s wife, Din Phanara, who insisted that her husband had not committed any crime and called the charges against her husband “unjust.”
“If my husband had committed a crime he would never have returned to Cambodia,” she said.
Mam Sonando was in Europe when security forces surrounded Broma village and moved to evict the villagers on May 16 in a violent crackdown. He returned home on July 12, days before his arrest.
Cambodia Center for Human Rights Director Ou Virak, who also participated in the protest, said Mam Sonando should have been released on bail because he is not a flight risk, adding that the broadcasting director’s arrest “will affect independent media in the country.”
The Cambodian government accused Mam Sonando’s Association of Democrats of sparking the May land revolt and the ensuing clashes in which an innocent teenage girl was fatally shot by security forces.
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 Russian firm Casotim, which plans to set up a rubber plantation.
Several thousand Cambodians are driven every year from farmland or urban areas to make way for real estate developments or mining and agricultural projects, reports have said.
Economic land concessions granted to private developers have been at the root of several high-profile disputes in recent years, including in the Boeung Kak Lake and Borei Kela areas of Phnom Penh, where residents say they were forced from their homes.
Mam Sonando informed RFA in a brief email that “seven cars and [a] score of police” came to arrest him at his residence in Phnom Penh on Sunday morning. He had earlier rejected any links to the revolt in an interview with RFA.
Human rights groups have protested the arrest, saying it was politically motivated.
Mam Sonando has been arrested twice before.
In 2003, he was arrested and charged with giving "false" information and inciting people to "discriminate" and "commit crimes."
In 2005, he was held and charged with defamation over a radio interview that elicited criticism of Hun Sen's Cambodian border control issues with Vietnam.
Reported by Vichey Anandh for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.