A Cambodian court has sentenced a journalist and activist to 20 years in prison. Mam Sonando had been accused of instigating an anti-government rebellion. But critics say authorities are trying to silence a vocal critic.
A court in Phnom Penh on Monday sentenced journalist Mam Sonando to 20 years in prison. Sonando, 71, was accused of inciting an anti-government movement. However, critics say authorities had little basis for the accusations.
Following Monday's verdict, Rupert Abbott with London-based Amnesty International called the sentence "outrageous."
"We believe the motivation behind his conviction is because he's been a prominent government critic," Abbott said. "He's seen, I think, as a threat to the government; someone who's prepared to speak out."
Sonando ran the popular independent radio station Beehive Radio and was president of Cambodia's Democrat Association. In Cambodia, the media scene is dominated by outlets that are generally sympathetic to the ruling party. But Sonando's station often aired stories that were critical of the governing Cambodian People's Party.
The charges against Sonando stemmed from a confrontation in May between authorities and villagers in eastern Cambodia. The villagers had been protesting against the expropriation of land. Security forces fired on the protesters, resulting in the death of a 14-year-old girl.
Shortly after, authorities accused villagers of plotting an armed revolt against the government - a claim the villagers denied. Sonando was later accused of inciting the alleged rebellion, which he also denied.
Rights groups say that Sonando's September trial ran relatively smoothly, compared to other recent convictions of protesters and government critics. But they also say the prosecution failed to present convincing evidence linking Sonando to any insurrection.
"I think what we can see is perhaps the authorities here are learning that if you can make the trial look a bit better on the face of things then perhaps you can deflect some criticism," Abbott said. "The problem is, though, the evidence was so weak, we can only come to the conclusion that the decision to give Mam Sonando a 20-year sentence was based on something other than the evidence."
On Monday, the court also convicted several other villagers in relation to the alleged insurrection; they received sentences ranging from several months to 30 years.
Growing unease over land disputes
Critics say Monday's convictions are a symptom of a growing unease in Cambodia over land disputes. Over the last two decades, the government has awarded huge swathes of land to private firms as part of economic concessions aimed at triggering development. But it has also fueled confrontations between authorities, the companies and villagers who say they are being evicted from their homes.
In January, for example, authorities demolished roughly 300 homes in Phnom Penh's Borei Keila neighborhood - the culmination of a long-standing dispute.
In another high-profile confrontation in May, 13 women from the capital's Boeung Kak community were arrested and sentenced to more than two years in prison. The charges were later reduced to time already served on appeal.
But to government watchdogs, the message is that increasingly, authorities in Cambodia are continuing to crack down on its most vocal critics. Last week in Geneva, United Nations' Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi told the UN Human Rights Council that land disputes and forced evictions were continuing unabated.
"There are well-documented serious and widespread human rights violations associated with land concessions that need to be addressed and remedied," Subedi wrote in a report. "Criminalization of land activists and human rights defenders is particularly worrying, as freedom of expression and assembly is crucial to a well-functioning democratic society."
The government, however, disagreed with Subedi's assessment. Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, said the special rapporteur's findings were "unfair."
"It was kind of out of date," Siphan said, noting that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this year announced a moratorium on granting new land concessions. "[Subedi] obtained second-hand information. It's not updated to what's going on in Cambodia."
Siphan also disagreed with critics of the Cambodian court system, maintaining that the judiciary and government operate independently.
Still, Monday's convictions and lengthy sentences came as a surprise to some observers.
"It's pretty sad," said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. "It's pretty sad this court hasn't improved in the past two decades. With all of the money, with all of the push, with everybody trying to come up with all kinds of indicators and all kinds of strategic meetings, here we are with a court that is basically a political tool."