The dismissal on appeal of the most serious charges against broadcaster and democracy activist Mam Sonando and his subsequent release in March were in no small part the result of efforts made by both human rights and legal aid partners of EWMI’s Program on Rights and Justice in Cambodia.
During January and February, EWMI partners continued their advocacy efforts to draw attention to the case of imprisoned broadcaster and democracy activist Mam Sonando and fight for his release. On October 1, 2012, he had been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for alleged involvement in an alleged secessionist movement in Kratie. On January 15, CCHR launched the Mam Sonando Justice Calendar Campaign marking the six months since the broadcaster’s arrest. An accompanying campaign allowed individuals to enter design ideas for a postcard related to his case. In February, CCHR distributed 10,000 copies of the winning entry and people were encouraged to write messages of support and return them to the pick-up points. The messages were read during CCHR’s weekly radio broadcasts and the postcards delivered to the democracy activist in Prey Sar prison.
On the international front, Amnesty International issued a call to action on February 21 urging people to call on Prime Minister Hun Sen and other government officials to release Sonando ahead of his retrial in March. Calling Sonando a “prisoner of conscience,” the appeal also urged people to call on the authorities to “protect, respect and promote the right to freedom of expression in Cambodia.” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the effort, reiterating a long-held position that Cambodia is a sovereign state and would not bow to international pressure. This campaign was significantly influenced by EWMI partners, especially LICADHO, ADHOC, and CCHR, which gave Amnesty International information and strategy advice.
In preparation for Sonando’s Appeals Court trial, EWMI staff spent significant time supporting the creation of a legal team that could effectively manage the intricacies of this case, involving multiple complex charges founded on a theory of secondary liability similar in nature to conspiracy and the (often conflicting) testimony of numerous witnesses, including fellow accused that had provided testimony in support of the prosecution, apparently for favorable treatment.
EWMI recruited law graduates (who had previously participated in EWMI legal education programs) from the Royal University of Law and Economics to prepare a database of testimony, evidence and legal conclusions identified in the court judgment supporting the October 1, 2012 conviction, which was used by lawyers to develop a strong legal memorandum in favor of acquittal. EWMI also engaged Vishnu Law Group lawyers (under its USAID-funded grant) in the preparation of witness requests, direct and cross-examination questions for witnesses, and a legal memo identifying contradictions in evidence and errors in law contributing to Sonando’s conviction. As a result of actions taken by EWMI partners and others who supported the Sonando defense, his defense team was well prepared for trial and there was a wellspring of public support for his release.
On March 5, the appeal got underway to review the verdicts against Mam Sonando and two co-defendants, Touch Ream and Kan Sovann. There was standing-room only during proceedings, with around 55 people packing the courtroom including numerous international observers. Before the trial began, Sonando’s lawyers had requested the court postpone the proceedings due to the absence of key witnesses. The request was denied.
Outside the building, around 600 members of the Association of Democrats, which Mam Sonando heads, as well as other activists, gathered to demand his release. Their shouts were heard inside the courtroom. Numerous national and international representatives observed, inside and outside the courtroom. Monitors included staff from LICADHO, ADHOC, CHRAC, and CCHR. Demonstrators included members of PRAJ-supported CSOs, including IDEA and their affiliates CCFC and CYN, and CPN affiliates from Boeung Kak and Borei Keila.
On March 6, the prosecutor unexpectedly asked that two of the charges against Sonando, inciting insurrection and a charge relating to use of arms against officials, be dropped, but that an additional, less-serious, charge be added of illegally clearing state-owned land. (ADHOC described this new charge as supremely ironic, given Sonando’s work to educate Cambodians about their land rights – and it may have been intended to discredit him in this respect.) The prosecution asked that the remaining charges be upheld. On March 14, the Appeals Court reached its verdict, which tracked with the prosecutor’s recommendations, dismissing the most serious offenses and finding Sonando guilty of remaining minor offenses, as well as illegally clearing forest. The court reduced his sentence from twenty to five years. As four years and four months of the sentence were suspended, Sonando was released from prison.
A wide array of local NGOs and CSOs, including EWMI partners LICADHO, IDEA, and CCHR, were quick to issue statements welcoming his release and that of Touch Ream and Kan Sovann. Some pointed out that the release came in the wake of intense international and domestic pressure on the authorities for Sonando’s release, including statements by US President Barack Obama, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. (It was also noted in the press that, the week before, France had signed off on a multi-million dollar package of aid to Cambodia.) The pleasure at seeing Sonando released was tempered by the awareness that unwarranted convictions still stand against the three men and that Mam Sonando will remain under judicial supervision for the next three years. Nonetheless, the case stands as an example where EWMI human rights partners and a legal aid grantee worked together to obtain freedom, if not full justice, for a democracy activist who had obviously been imprisoned for expressing his thoughts, and encouraging others to think freely.