PHNOM PENH — A Cambodian court has sentenced a government critic to 20 years in prison on charges of seeking to incite a rebellion against the state. Prosecutors accused independent broadcaster Mam Sonando, 71, of fostering a secessionist movement, but rights groups say the charges were unfounded.
Rupert Abbott, of the London-based human rights group Amnesty International, says the charges were baseless.
“I think the verdict against Mam Sonando is outrageous," Abbott said. "There’s been no evidence to suggest that he was involved in anything, any insurrection or indeed that an insurrection took place at that village. So the verdict seems very much politicized, and in our view is designed to shut down the voice of someone who’s been a prominent critic of the Royal Government of Cambodia.”
In May, Cambodian security forces used live ammunition against villagers protesting forced evictions from their homes. A 14-year-old girl was killed in the shooting. Cambodian authorities subsequently accused some villagers of attempting to launch an armed insurrection. They accused Sonando of inciting the alleged rebellion.
But rights advocates who attended Sonando’s September trial say the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence to prove the alleged plot. The severity of Monday’s sentence, then, came as a shock to some observers.
“I’m very, very upset given the fact that we’ve been doing this, we’ve been pushing this government for almost two decades now. And it hasn’t changed," said Ou Virak, who heads the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. "The court is still a political tool. The verdict was basically written like a political essay. That’s what upset me even more.”
Sonando operated Beehive Radio, a rare independent outlet in a country where the airwaves are dominated by media sympathetic to the government. He also headed a non-governmental organization that promoted human rights and democracy.
Hundreds of Sonando supporters gathered near the courthouse Monday. As the verdict was announced, the protesters surged forward toward the courthouse, only to be pushed back by riot police.
Sonando has 30 days to appeal the verdict against him.