Cambodian activist and independent radio chief Mam Sonando walked out of prison Friday after a court quashed his conviction for alleged involvement in a secession plot, pledging to continue his efforts to promote democracy but vowing to stay clear of politics.
“I will not establish any political party and I will not become involved in politics,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service after throngs of jubilant supporters greeted him when he stepped out of Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh.
“I will educate the people about their rights, the law, and democracy so that voters will be better informed,” said the 71-year-old director of the popular Beehive Radio station and president of Cambodia’s Democrats Association, an active nongovernmental organization.
Upon his release at around 9:00 a.m. local time Friday, supporters carried him on their shoulders through a crowd of some 1,000 people playing drums and shouting “three cheers for the president.”
A day earlier, Cambodia’s Court of Appeal ordered his release after prosecutors sought to drop two of the most serious charges against him—insurrection and incitement to take up arms against the state.
He was arrested in July last year, convicted of the charges three months later, and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The Appeals Court on Thursday, however, convicted Mam Sonando on a new charge of illegal logging under the Forestry Law and reduced his sentence to five years, with eight months—or time served—in prison and the rest suspended.
“I would like to say thank you very much for your support,” he told the crowd of supporters who came to greet him. “It’s been almost one year since I have met with the people. When I spend time with the villagers, I get so excited that I feel like I am in paradise.”
He traveled to his home from the prison in an open car and was greeted by additional supporters who streamed out of their homes to celebrate his release. Local monks blessed him on arrival at home in Kandal province just outside the capital Phnom Penh.
Back to work
Mam Sonando told RFA that despite the widespread support he enjoys for his work advancing democracy and human rights, he plans to refrain from politics in the lead-up to Cambodia’s national polls in July.
He said he plans to continue his active role in his NGO.
“I am committed to the Democrats Association—I don’t do politics,” he said.
But he added that he would maintain close contact with all of the country’s political parties in a bid to improve the living standards of the Cambodian people.
Mam Sonando also said that he hopes to increase the range of his radio station to reach more remote areas of the country, although the Ministry of Information has so far prevented him from doing so.
The rights activist expressed mixed feelings about his release, saying he was glad to be free, but unhappy that he had been convicted for a crime he didn’t commit.
“I am happy that I have been released, but I am also sad because I didn’t commit any crime. The court convicted me of a crime that I never could have conceived of,” he said.
“A sentence of 20 years in prison makes me seem like a vicious kind of person.”
Mam Sonando was accused and convicted 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.
A 14-year-old girl, Heng Chantha, was shot dead by government forces during the clashes.
Cambodian authorities had faced intense international and domestic pressure to release Mam Sonando, who has Cambodian-French dual citizenship, with U.S. President Barack Obama and French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault among those who called for his freedom.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, welcomed Mam Sonando’s release in a statement Friday, saying he was glad that the appeals court had considered some of his recommendations about the original trial during his last visit to the country in December.
“The Court of Appeal found that there was no evidence to support many of the charges, after first instance sentences of periods up to 20 years on charges including instigating insurrection,” Subedi said.
“Some of the significant defects in the original trial, which were highlighted by some of my interlocutors with whom I met during my last mission to the Kingdom in December 2012, were remedied on appeal.”
But he expressed concern that some of the original convictions remained against Mam Sonando, and that other new charges and convictions had been introduced without an opportunity for the rights activist to defend himself.
“I have followed the case of Mam Sonando closely, and I visited him in prison last December to hear his own views on the process. The link between the prosecution of Mam Sonando and freedom of expression in Cambodia is of concern to me,” he said.
“As I noted in my last report to the [U.N.] Human Rights Council, genuine freedom of expression is essential to any well-functioning democratic society.”
Subedi urged the Cambodian government, civil society, the U.N., and Cambodia’s donor countries to be “vigilant” in promoting and protecting the right to freedom of expression in the lead-up to July’s elections.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.