A positive move? Cambodian court drops Sonando charges, adds moreBy Clothilde Le Coz Mar 07, 2013 3:33PM UTC
On March 6, 2013, after a two-day hearing, the prosecutor asked the Phnom Penh Court of Appeals Court to drop the two main insurrection charges against Cambodian activist Mam Sonando. The judge added a new charge for “inciting the clearing of forest land” and Sonando is still facing an indirect insurrection charge, but overall it was a good day for human rights in Cambodia.
On Tuesday Ruppert Abbott, researcher for Amnesty International, told ABC that when he monitored the first trial he could see no evidence to show that an insurrection took place in Kratie, let alone that Mr Sonando instigated it. This time, the prosecutor shared this opinion and asked the Appeal Court to drop all criminal charges of inciting people to bear arms and insurrection and illegal interference in public duties.
A positive move
“This is a positive move,” said Sa Sovan, one of Sonando’s lawyers. “The conviction of the municipal court was a wrong interpretation and a stipulated assertion.”
Mam Sonando’s wife also said she was hoping for the best and that the decision of the Prosecutor was positive and proves the Court was listening to the case. According to the prosecutor, he decriminalized the case because he was told to do so.
The three remaining charges are now: fomenting opposition to government officials (article 28 of the Penal Code), and opposition to legal authority (art 504 and 609). These two are not criminal charges but correctional ones, that could still condemn Sonando up to at least four years in jail. Moreover, before leaving the courtroom, the Judge added a charge of”inciting the clearing of forest land and claiming owvership, which could equate to five to 10 years in jail according to the Foresty Law. Ou Virak, Director of the Cambodian Center for Human fears that this decision can lead to set him as an example for all land activist trying to defend their rights, especially now that the National Assembly elections are coming.
“It is not applicable because the judge cannot change the accusation without my client being able to defend himself,” said Sa Sovan.
For a day and a half, all five people who spoke in front of the Court , for the defence and the prosecution, declared they did not meet Mam Sonando. Some of them saw pictures of him that members from the Association of Democrats were showing in Kratie province. Some others hadn’t even heard of him. On March 6th, the prosecutor said “there is not anu reason to believe that Mam Sonando incited residents to clear land or use weapons illegally against the government officials”.
However, Mam Sonando is still accused of instigating an insurrection movement in Kratie province, related to the conflict between the villagers of Proma and the Russian firm Casotim. This accusation lies under the article 28, where instigation allows for Mam Sonando to be charged with crimes he not personally commit. He faces the same penalty as the perpetrator of the underlying crime, Bun Ratha. “However, according to the law, there needs to be a direct and precise order given by the instigator to the perpetrator. There is no proof of this here”, said Sa Sovan.
“Only asking for democracy”
In an exclusive interview published by FrontLine Defenders on March 6th, Mam Sonando said that he knows that if he succeeds, Cambodia will succeed too. “But the government wants to be the only one to do so and does not accept any auxiliary. If I [lack the courage to fight back], Cambodia will not be helped. I am only asking for democracy,” he said.
On Beehive Radio, Mam Sonando was hosted one show where he was telling the listeners about his trips to the provinces and how he could help people. According to his staff, he was informing Cambodian citizens of their rights and explaining the constitution.
During the appeal trial, he was asked whether he met with victims of land grabbing from Kratie province. He acknowledged he did, but did not help them as they did not have any land title for their land.
“They were occupying it illegally and I am not helping people who do not comply with the law,” he stated.
“His words are direct and the government is not happy with him. The case of Mam Sonando is a 100% political”, said Kem Sokha, the president of the Human Rights Party in an interview last week.
“For example, when the government says it will arrest him, he says ‘I am not scared’ [...] but the Cambodian leaders want people to be more flexible,” he continued.
Sonando’s wife confided that he came back to the country in July knowing he could be arrested. But he wanted to show Cambodians he was honest and would not avoid his responsibility.