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Cambodia Overturns Conviction of Government Critic

Supporters of Mam Sonando, owner of a local independent radio station and a land rights campaigner, take part in a protest demanding his release in front of the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh, March 14, 2013.
A Cambodian appeals court has overturned the conviction against an independent radio owner who was sentenced to 20 years in prison on insurrection charges.

The court in Phnom Penh said there was no evidence to convict the 71-year-old Mam Sonando, whose eight-month imprisonment had prompted protests from human rights groups and foreign governments.

The court dropped the anti-state charges against him. Instead, he was given a suspended five-year sentence on lesser charges related to his alleged involvement in unrest triggered by a wave of forced evictions. He is expected to be released from jail later this week.

Amnesty International, who considered Sonando to be a prisoner of conscience, welcomed the move as a "positive step for freedom of expression" in Cambodia. But it said Sonando should have never been imprisoned, and that the convictions that stand "appear to be baseless."

As the hearing got underway last week, Sonando told reporters he was pessimistic about winning the appeal.

Sonando was convicted in October on charges of encouraging villagers to form their own state following a land dispute in eastern Cambodia. He says the charges against him were politically motivated and that he was unfairly blamed for the unrest.

Cambodia has carried out an intensifying series of sometimes violent forced evictions affecting tens of thousands of people. Activists say officials are increasingly cracking down on those who challenge the land grabs.

Sonando's radio station, known as Beehive Radio, has been outspoken on the issue of land rights. It broadcasts material critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985.

But Sonando says his station was not involved in the unrest, which the government viewed as a rebellion.

Beehive Radio carries programming for Voice of America.