Cambodian radio station chief Mam Sonando rejected charges that he masterminded a secessionist plot as his trial opened Tuesday amid tight security, with hundreds of his supporters prevented from entering the court.
Judge Chang Sinath of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court read the charges against Mam Sonando, 71, who was arrested in July and accused of sparking a May land revolt and ensuing clashes in Kratie province’s Chhlong district.
“I didn’t establish any self-governing zone,” Mam Sonando, who is the director of the independent Beehive Radio station, told the judge in front of reporters, who were only briefly allowed to view the proceedings before being removed from the courtroom by authorities who said the chamber was “too small” to accommodate them.
Court officials permitted foreign diplomats and staff members from international rights groups to stay throughout the hearing, although representatives of Cambodian rights groups were asked to leave.
Mam Sonando has been in poor health in jail since his arrest in July for allegedly orchestrating a mass occupation of land in Broma village 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 Russian firm Casotim, which plans to set up a rubber plantation.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had insinuated before Mam Sonando’s arrest that he should be taken into custody, saying the activist had been leading a "secession" plot and attempting to establish "a state within a state."
Mam Sonando, who was in court alongside eight others charged for participating in the land clash, also told the court that he has no connection with Bun Ratha, an activist currently in hiding after authorities accused him of helping to organize the incident.
“I don’t know Bun Ratha in person,” said Mam Sonando, who is also the president of the Association of Democrats, a nongovernmental organization which has been accused of fueling the land revolt that led to clashes in which in an innocent teenage girl was fatally shot by security forces.
Mam Sonando said however that he was aware that Bun Ratha had volunteered with the Association of Democrats to assist in the issuing of membership cards.
Mam Sonando faces 30 years imprisonment if convicted on all charges.
As the trial got under way, some 500 supporters crowded around the courthouse carrying banners calling for Mam Sonando's release, but were made to stay about 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the building by around 100 anti-riot police, according to witnesses.
The supporters—most of whom came from outside of the capital—clashed briefly with security forces after they were told that they could not hold a rally at the site, and at least two children were injured during the melee, they said.
Witnesses said that a monk who was among the supporters outside the courtroom was also detained, but was later released.
Agence-France Presse quoted Touch Naruth, Phnom Penh police chief, as saying that the group was not permitted to rally because the noise would "bother the hearing."
Opposition Sam Rainsy Party Member of Parliament Son Chhay, who also participated in the rally, said he was outraged that authorities would not allow lawmakers to attend the trial.
“The action of the authorities goes against court procedures,” he said, adding that the hearing should have been open to the public. “Why didn’t they allow lawmakers to view the hearing?”
Speaking to RFA from his place in hiding, activist Bun Ratha criticized the court for not allowing the public to witness the hearing.
“The court is hiding something,” he said.
Council of Ministers Spokesman Tith Sothea downplayed any suggestion of political machinations behind Mam Sonando’s case.
“The court is an independent institution,” he said. “This is rule of law.”
He suggested that supporters provide the court with sufficient evidence if they want to help Mam Sonando, adding that he and his fellow defendants “should find good lawyers to defend them.”
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.
Last month Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen rejected charges that Mam Sonando's most recent arrest was aimed at closing down his Beehive Radio station, a frequent source of broadcasts critical of the government.
Beehive Radio is one of only a few media outlets in Cambodia that air independent news, including coverage of opposition and minority political parties, and carries programming by RFA.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.