EMBATTLED independent radio station owner Mam Sonando will be released Saturday – just eight months after his arrest on insurrection charges – after the Appeal Court substantially reduced a 20-year sentence widely labeled as politically motivated.
At the prosecutor’s request, judges dropped the strongest charge against Sonando and replaced it with a lesser forestry-related crime. His sentence was reduced to five years, then suspended to eight months, Judge Khun Leang said at a Thursday morning verdict announcement.
Two other men who were convicted alongside Sonando – Chan Sovann and Touch Rin – and sentenced to three and five years, respectively, also saw their sentences reduced and will be released Saturday.
In October, the trio were sentenced for stoking a so-called secessionist movement in Kratie province – a claim used by the government to justify a violent mass eviction last May that saw a 14-year-old girl shot dead by police. Rights groups and legal monitors have noted that no credible evidence had ever been presented suggesting such a movement existed, let alone that Sonando masterminded it. Among the critics of the conviction were US President Barack Obama, who raised the case, by name, with Prime Minister Hun Sen during his visit last year.
Outside the Appeal Court gates yesterday, hundreds of Sonando’s supporters amassed, cheering as news of the verdict trickled out the courtroom.
A smiling Sonando flashed the victory sign at reporters as he was escorted to a police van.
“I won’t speak now as I’m not yet free, but come see me in Kien Svay,” he said, referring to his home that doubles as the headquarters of Beehive radio station.
Amnesty International, which labeled Sonando a prisoner of conscience, called the release a positive step “with caveats.”
“There are of course concerns. Mam Sonando should never have been in prison in the first place, the original charges – and indeed the new charges – again seem completely baseless,” said Cambodia researcher Rupert Abbott. “Lets hope this represents a shifting of what we’ve seen in Cambodia, where we’ve seen this assault on freedom of expression; lets hope we see that halt.”