Cambodia’s Appeals Court is set to announce a decision next week on the fate of veteran journalist Mam Sonando after prosecutors dropped two of the most serious charges on which he was convicted and ordered jailed for 20 years for allegedly masterminding a “secessionist” plot.
Presiding judge Khun Leang Meng announced after a two-day hearing on Wednesday that the verdict would be given on March 14, saying the court needs time to study the appeal as the case is “too complicated.”
In a surprise move, prosecutors asked the court to drop the two most serious charges against Mam Sonando—insurrection and incitement to take up arms against the state—on which the veteran journalist was originally convicted despite his rejection of the charges as baseless.
At the same time, though, the prosecutors asked the court to retain two lesser charges—obstruction of public officials and interference in the discharge of public duties—and to add a third charge of illegal logging under Cambodia’s 2002 Forestry Law.
Speaking to reporters as he was taken back to prison, Mam Sonando, director of the independent Beehive Radio station, declared himself “happy” with the dropping of the two more serious charges, but said he was concerned at the adding of another.
“I am happy, but not 100 percent,” said the 71-year-old Mam Sonando, who is also head of the Association of Democrats.
“I will be completely happy when the court drops all the charges against me, because I have done nothing wrong.”
Mam Sonando’s lawyer, Sar Sovan, called the new set of charges against his client “positive signs.”
“The appeals court now is not considering the same charges as the Phnom Penh Municipal Court … This is very good,” he said.
According to the charges now being examined by the court, he said, Mam Sonando will face at most three years behind bars.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator for the rights group Licadho who observed the two-day hearing, said that he too hopes the appeals court will now drop all charges against Mam Sonando.
“According to the questions asked, evidence presented, and witnesses who spoke, there is nothing that proves that Mam Sonando is guilty of these charges,” he said.
Mam Sonando was convicted in October 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.
Rights groups charge that Cambodian courts are frequently used to imprison or intimidate government critics, such as Mam Sonando and exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
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. Written in English by Richard Finney.