Updated at 8:30 p.m. EST on 2012-10-1
Dissident Cambodian radio station chief Mam Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Monday for allegedly masterminding a secessionist plot, in a conviction condemned as politically motivated by rights groups.
Human Rights Watch said the ruling was the worst decision by a Cambodian court in two decades and that the charges against the 71-year-old Mam Sonando were intended as political retaliation by Prime Minister Hun Sen for allowing critical views of the government on his independent radio station.
The United States said it was "deeply concerned" by the conviction and "harsh" sentence, pointing out that observers in Cambodia have noted that the charges against the activist appear to have been "politically-motivated, based on his frequent criticism of the government," according to the State Department.
It called on Hun Sen's government to release Mam Sonando immediately, to ensure that its court system is free from political influence, and to reaffirm its commitment to guaranteeing its citizens’ basic human rights.
Mam Sonando, who has rejected the charges as baseless, will appeal against the conviction meted out by the Phnom Penh municipal court, according to his wife.
The activist, who operates the 105 FM Beehive radio station, was found guilty of insurrection and inciting villagers to take up arms against the state.
The court also found 13 others guilty of inciting an alleged anti-state rebellion in clashes over land rights in Kratie province.
While getting in a car to be escorted back to Prey Sar Prison, Mam Sonando, who was also given a 10 million riel (U.S. $2,500) fine, said he would continue to fight for justice in Cambodia.
“I am happy and proud to continue helping the Khmer people,” he said.
Several hundred supporters protested outside the courthouse carrying placards and shouting slogans calling for his release.
His wife Din Sophanara said Mam Sonando would appeal the verdict and that he was not involved in the Kratie dispute, which broke out in May after thousands of villagers refused a government order to vacate farmland that was awarded to a developer in a land concession.
“All the others who were involved received lenient sentences. He was not involved but received a grave sentence,” she said outside the courthouse.
Codefendant Bun Ratha, a land rights advocate who went into hiding after authorities accused him of helping to organize the villagers’ revolt, was sentenced in absentia to 30 years in prison.
The others were sentenced to between 10 months and 15 years in prison each.
'Worst miscarriage of justice'
Cambodian and international rights groups have called the accusations against Mam Sonando baseless, saying the government was seeking to justify its harsh crackdown on the alleged Kratie rebellion.
A 15-year-old girl, Heng Chentha, was shot dead when she was struck by a bullet authorities say ricocheted after it was fired as a warning shot during the clashes in Kratie’s Chhlong district triggered by a refusal by some 1,000 village families to vacate state land they had used for farming.
Some of the villagers were armed with axes and crossbows.
In condemning the court decision, Human Rights Watch said this is “the worst miscarriage of justice we have seen” since U.N. forces withdrew about 20 years ago after helping to rebuild war-shattered Cambodia.
“[The case] shows that Hun Sen and the CPP (the ruling Cambodian People’s Party) are absolutely incapable of tolerating dissent,” HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams told RFA’s Khmer service.
“Mam Sonando was a critic of theirs, they didn’t like him, so they made up this case and they’ve thrown him in jail and thrown away the key,” he said.
Hun Sen had insinuated in a nationally broadcast speech before his arrest that the activist should be taken into custody for having led a "secession" plot and attempting to establish "a state within a state."
Adams said there was no evidence Mam Sonando, who was arrested in July at his home in Phnom Penh, had been involved in the Kratie dispute, adding that the claim that the villagers were attempting to secede from the country was “ridiculous.”
He added that 20 years in prison would essentially be a “death sentence” for Mam Sonando, who has been in poor health since his arrest.
Hun Sen’s government rejected accusations that the charges were politically motivated, saying the court’s ruling should be respected.
“We should let the court do their job independently without any interference. If he thinks it is not fair, Mr. Sonando’s defense lawyer can discuss with Sonando himself whether they will file a complaint in accordance with legal procedures,” Council of Ministers spokesman Tith Sothea told RFA’s Khmer service.
“It is not the case that only if the court decided in Mam Sonando’s favor would the sentencing be just.”
In August, Hun Sen rejected charges that Mam Sonando's case was aimed at closing down the Beehive radio station.
Mam Sonando’s lawyer, rights advocate Sok Sam Oeun who is the executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said it was not his place to comment whether or not the court’s ruling was just.
“Fair or unfair, I will not say. [That is a question for] the suspects themselves because they know the truth, which I don’t,” he told reporters.
But rights groups said the case raises concerns about the impartiality of Cambodia’s justice system.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a statement expressing “serious concern” over the conviction, saying it “raises severe doubts about the impartiality and independence of the court.”
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said Mam Sonando’s case demonstrates how the Cambodian government uses the courts as a “tool for repression.”
“Throughout the course of the trial, the court has not provided any credible evidence to substantiate the outlandish claim that there is a 'secessionist' movement in Kratie, let alone connecting Sonando to any such movement,” FIDH Southeast Asia representative Shiwei Ye said.
Mam Sonando, who is also the director of the Association of Democrats, has been arrested twice before for his political activities and for "defaming" the government.
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.
Reported by Tep Nimol, Ses Vansak, Morm Moniroth, and Mom Sophon for RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.