The appeal hearings in the trial of Beehive radio station owner Mam Sonando will start on March 5. By that time he will have spent 234 days in prison. Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in jail for “secession” on October 1, 2012. Since then, the Cambodian civil society and the international community have been mobilizing, asking the Cambodian authorities for his release.

During the Bon Pka celebrations on February 24, Din Panhara, Sonando’s wife, organized a special ceremony to keep his husband’s promise; raise funds to contribute to building a school in the Kompon Cham province. “My husband went to this village several time. There are over 300 children there who do not have access to education. Today, people are coming to contribute to this project.” Each of them can make a donation and buy the “calendar of justice” counting the days since Sonando has been imprisoned. According to Panhara, more than 8,000 have already been sold.

Mam Sonando. Pic: AP.

A premonitory dream?

“I know Mam Sonando will be released around the end of the month. Buddha told it to me in my dreams,” declares an enthusiastic admirator of Beehive and its owner as she enters the pagoda. People gathered there are generally confident in the upcoming appeal. Smiles are everywhere, calendars are proudly waved and postcards are snapped up like hotcakes. They will be brought to him by his wife during a next visit. The most educated gathered here start to frenetically write all the wishes of a lot of their fellows.

“Mam Sonando never stops helping the poor. If someone is starving or sick, he will help. Once, somebody swallowed a fishbone and almost died of it. Sonando paid for his hospital fees. That is the reason why people like him; he always helps the ones with nothing,” states Chhay Yet, 85, years old from Kandal province.

After the ceremony, 10 people took the microphone to express their support to the radio and Sonando.

“Do not be scared. Our country has laws. If Cambodians join together, then our country will be better developed,” said Panhara to the assembly. Pannary Huon, the Under-Secretary for the Association of Democrats (AOD) that Sonando created, also distributed posters from the Frontline Defenders‘ organization. This Ireland-based organization defending the defenders of human rights nominated Mam Sonando for its 2013 Award at the end of January.

“I think it is important that people know about it,” she explained. Sonando’s sentence left a bitter taste at the AOD.

The tribunal concluded that he fomented a protest movement in Broma, a village located on the border with Vietnam. There, the local authorities shot at the protesters and killed a 14-year-old girl.

“The Cambodian authorities are trying to suppress our activities as they are afraid of losing what they got since they took power,” said one member of the AOD. “The government is missing a lot of issues here, especially when it comes to respecting and implemeting the law. The Association is there to complete what the government needs to do. We were granted a license from the Ministry of Interior to do so.”

Calls for justice

On February 21 Amnesty International launched a petition to ask for Sonando’s release. The day before, the American Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Michael Posner reiterated his call for Sonando’s release in front of the Cambodian authorities as he was visiting Phnom Penh. Earlier this month, the French Prime Minister also mentioned it to the Prime Minister Hun Sen. Sonando holds a French passport and owns two businesses in Paris.

This echoes the wishes expressed by Secretary of State Hilary-Clinton in July 2012, by President Barack Obama in November as well as by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, in December. In October, the US-based organisation Human Rights Watch also encouraged  the donors to insist on Mam Sonando’s release and realize that Cambodia was becoming a “one-party country”.