Jailed Cambodian independent radio station director Mam Sonando on Tuesday rejected charges that he was behind a secessionist plot, as a court began hearing an appeal against his 20-year imprisonment.
“I didn’t establish any secessionist region as the court’s charges say,” the veteran journalist and Beehive Radio station director said as about 500 supporters, mostly from his Association of Democrats, protested outside the court calling for his release.
They raised banners and gathered thumbprints to support Mam Sonando, shouting “Mam Sonando Beehive Radio Director is not guilty.”
“Let him out, he is our hero, he loves the country, please release him,” a woman shouted.
The 71-year-old Mam Sonando was convicted in October of plotting to establish an autonomous region in eastern Kratie province, charges which critics say are politically motivated.
The appeals court is also hearing an appeal by two other villagers from Kratie province who were jailed for between three and five years on similar charges.
Presiding judge Khun Lean Meng said the hearing by a court panel will continue on Wednesday.
When Mam Sonando left the courthouse to be transferred to Prey Sar Prison, he said he did not want to comment on the case until the verdict was announced, but thanked his supporters for being at the court with him.
“I will wait until the end of my trial to say whether there is justice or not. I would like to say 'hello' to all Khmers around the world who have demanded justice for me,” he told reporters.
Mam Sonando, regarded as a "prisoner of conscience" by rights group Amnesty International, was arrested in July last year following a nationally broadcast speech in which Hun Sen insinuated that the activist should be taken into custody for having led a "secession" plot and attempting to establish "a state within a state."
The government has accused Mam Sonando 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.
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.
The Association of Democrats has been accused of sparking the land revolt and the ensuing clashes in which in an innocent teenage girl was fatally shot by security forces.
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.
Rights groups charge that Cambodian courts are frequently used to imprison or intimidate critics, such as Mam Sonando and exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
Beehive Radio is one of 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 Parameswaran Ponnudurai.