A Cambodian radio broadcaster was sentenced Monday to 20 years behind bars for stirring up an insurrection against the state, charges that human rights groups say are a fig leaf for the government squelching dissent.
Mam Sonando, the 71-year-old founder of Beehive Radio, was found guilty of instigating rebellion and inciting people to take up arms against the government, among other charges. The insurrection charges were tied to a land dispute in Kratie province during which security forces fatally shot a teenage girl.
Local activists have denied the government description of the Kratie clashes as efforts to stop a secessionist rebellion, calling it an excuse to eject families from land sought by a corporation. Sonando was abroad when security forces stormed the village in May, the Phnom Penh Post reported.
“Not a shred of evidence has been submitted in court that proves any connection between Mam Sonando and these bogus charges,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, calling the verdict “embarrassingly unsophisticated and brazen.”
His alarm was echoed by Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, who warned the conviction of Sonando and two other people by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court “raises severe doubts about the impartiality and independence of the court.”
Media freedom groups pointed out that Prime Minister Hun Sen began calling for Sonando's arrest the day after Beehive Radio broadcast a report about Cambodian activists accusing Hun Sen of human rights abuses in a complaint filed before the International Criminal Court. Sonando had been arrested in 2003 and 2005 for allegedly defaming the prime minister.
The stiff sentence comes as Cambodia has faced mounting criticism over attacks on human rights activists and journalists who draw attention to abuses tied to the government. As protests have erupted this year over factory conditions and Cambodians being pushed out of their homes to make way for development, human rights groups say the state has persecuted and jailed activists in retribution.
Earlier this year, United Nations human rights rapporteur for Cambodia Surya Subedi lamented "a worrying trend" of activists facing gunfire. Many Cambodians also remain suspicious over the shooting of environmental activist Chut Wutty this year; journalist Hang Serei Oudom was slain this month after implicating local officials in illegal trafficking of timber, according to Reporters Without Borders.