U.S. President Barack Obama raised concerns over the jailing of an independent Cambodian radio station chief during his visit to the country last week but did not specifically call for the journalist’s release, a Cambodian official said Tuesday.
The official spoke as the wife of 71-year-old Mam Sonando, director of Beehive Radio, pleaded with the Cambodian government to release the independent broadcaster following his recent conviction for masterminding a revolt of villagers over a land dispute. He has rejected the charges.
Cambodia's Council of Ministers Spokesman Phay Siphan said that during Obama’s historic visit to Phnom Penh—the first by a sitting U.S. head of state—the president had simply raised the situation of the country’s political prisoners with Prime Minister Hun Sen during bilateral talks.
“It was only [mentioned as] a concern of the president, not a request,” Phay Siphan said when asked if Obama had called on Hun Sen to release Mam Sonando.
“[Obama] was worried about political prisoners and asked Cambodia to release them. In response, Prime Minister Hun Sen explained that in the Kingdom of Cambodia there are no political prisoners—only politicians who were convicted for breaking the law,” he said.
“There wasn’t any request [to release Mam Sonando].”
Phay Siphan said that Obama asked the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh to continue to “work with Cambodia” to follow up on the issue.
Obama, who was in Phnom Penh to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia Summits, had expressed concern over Cambodia’s political prisoners during his meeting with Hun Sen and cited Mam Sonando, Cambodian officials said earlier.
Last week, government spokesperson Prak Sokhon said that Hun Sen had explained to Obama that Mam Sonando’s case was receiving a lot of publicity because people “mistakenly believe this was an attempt to shut down the radio station,” when Beehive is “still operating and remains popular.”
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 is a frequent source of broadcasts critical of the government.
Prak Sokhon said that Hun Sen also told Obama the courts are “working on [Mam Sonando’s] case.”
Mam Sonando has launched an appeal against his verdict by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. The appeal is pending, with no date set for a hearing.
On Tuesday, Mam Sonando’s wife Din Phanara made a personal plea to the government to set her husband free.
She thanked Obama for speaking to Hun Sen about her husband and said the U.S. president’s comments had shown the international community that Mam Sonando was innocent of the charges he was convicted of.
“I am confident that the government and court will offer justice to my husband. He didn’t commit any crimes,” she said.
Cambodian political analyst Lao Mong Hai on Tuesday said that Mam Sonando is a political prisoner and accused the Phnom Penh Municipal Court of lacking independence in convicting him.
“Mam Sonando’s case is involved with politics,” he said.
“The court was under political influence in handing its verdict down against Mam Sonando.”
Civil society groups Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) and Cambodian Center for Human Rights both condemned Hun Sen’s assertion that the country has no political prisoners and said that Mam Sonando is only one example of an activist jailed for dissent.
ADHOC Chief Investigator Ny Chakriya said Chairman of the Khmer Civilization Foundation “Moeung Sonn is another example of a political prisoner,” although he currently lives in exile in France.
Moeung Sonn was sentenced to two years in prison after he criticized Cabinet Chief Sok An for “mismanaging” the ancient Angkor Wat Hindu complex in Siem Reap province.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights Director Ou Virak said Moeung Sonn and Mam Sonando are “definitely political prisoners,” adding that the two men had been working to “serve the country” and “didn’t commit any crime.”
“Anyone who criticizes the government is considered to be in opposition to the government,” he said.
“The government always wins because the critics are imprisoned.”
Last week, while speaking in Preah Vihear province, Hun Sen stated again that Cambodia has “no political prisoners” and challenged rights groups who have criticized the country’s courts of lacking independence.
“I have already said that Cambodia has no political prisoners. [Rights groups] want me to intervene on behalf of certain prisoners, but then they would accuse me of interfering with the court,” he said, adding that “the court is independent.”
“[Rights groups] want me to break the law to release prisoners. No one should be able to stand above the law.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.