The head of an independent Cambodian radio station arrested a week ago for allegedly spearheading a land uprising has fallen ill in prison, his wife said Monday.
Mam Sonando, the director of Beehive Radio, was moved to a prison clinic for medical treatment on Sunday over a serious flu, wife Den Phanara said as more than 100 activists gathered in Phnom Penh on Monday to pray for his release.
“He has the flu. He couldn’t talk,” she said, adding that he had gotten sick from his cellmates in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar Prison, where he is awaiting trial on charges of orchestrating a land revolt in Kratie province that triggered a security crackdown and bloody clashes in May.
Den Phanara said the cell where he was being held before being taken to the clinic was narrow and that he had shared it with 15 others.
Mam Sonando, who is in his late 60s and head of the Association for Democrats activist group, was arrested at his home on July 15 after returning from a trip abroad and charged in court the next day.
He has rejected the charges. Lawyers said he faces a lengthy prison term if found guilty.
Human rights groups have protested the arrest, saying it was politically motivated and had dealt a blow to media freedom. They said the authorities were using the outspoken critic as a scapegoat for the country’s explosive land dispute issues.
More than 100 Beehive Radio and Association of Democrats supporters protested Monday in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, calling for Mam Sonando’s release and holding a prayer ceremony for him at the Preah Ang Dongkher statue.
Association of Democrats Secretary General Huon Phannary said supporters across the country have marched and prayed to call for his release.
“We have prayed that the court will seek justice for Mam Sonando regarding the charges against him. We are praying to all the sacred spirits that he will be released,” she said.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator for the Cambodian rights group Licadho, said Monday’s prayer ceremony was intended to send a message to the government to reconsider any targeting of Mam Sonando for political reasons.
“This ceremony will allow the court and the government to consider whether they find Mam Sonando guilty of any crime, and if not then the court can drop the charges and release him,” he said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen had last month accused Mam Sonando of leading a "secession" plot and attempting to establish "a state within a state” over a mass land occupation in Kratie’s Chhlong district, where clashes broke out after over 1,000 families in Broma village refused to vacate farmland granted to a developer in a concession for a rubber plantation.
Mam Sonando’s lawyer Sok Sam Oeun said Monday that the radio station chief will not be eligible for a request for bail until he has been held for a month.
He added that Mam Sonando—who has been arrested twice before, for alleged defamation and for giving "false" information that “incited” others to commit crimes—plans to appeal the current charges against him.
Some rights groups said the government delayed his arrest to wait for the conclusion of the high profile annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held in Phnom Penh and attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other international dignitaries.
Beehive Radio, which broadcasts on 105 FM in Phnom Penh, is one of few media outlets in the country airing independent news, including coverage of opposition and minority political parties, and carries programming by RFA and Voice of America.
Reported by Uon Chhin and Vichey Ananddh for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.