Open letter to Cambodian PM and justice minister
HE Hun Sen, Prime Minister, Kingdom of Cambodia; HE Ang Vong Vathna, Minister of Justice, Kingdom of Cambodia,
We the undersigned international and regional human rights and freedom of expression advocacy organisations, write to you to register our strongest protest and express our deepest concern over the recent arrest and persecution of Mam Sonando, the director of Beehive Radio, a Cambodian independent radio station. We strongly urge the Cambodian government to immediately release Mam Sonando, who was arrested for the legitimate exercise of his right to freedom of expression, and to drop all charges against him.
Sonando, 70 years old, was arrested at his home on July 15 on accusations of attempting to organise an "insurrectionary movement", and was subsequently charged under six sections of the penal code. If convicted, Sonando faces up to 30 years in prison.
We voice our concern over the arrest and persecution of Sonando based on the highly questionable circumstances surrounding his arrest: On June 22, Sonando was at the International Criminal Court in the Hague to cover the presentation of a communication by the Khmer People Power Movement to the Office of the Prosecutor on alleged crimes against humanity committed by the Cambodian government. Sonando's report was aired over Beehive Radio on June 25. The next day, the Cambodian prime minister publicly called for his arrest. Sonando voluntarily returned to Phnom Penh on July 12 and was subsequently arrested a few days after.
Furthermore, the charge that Sonando is linked to a "secessionist" movement in Kratie province is a largely unfounded one. We stress that Sonando's lawyer has reaffirmed that Sonando is not linked to the people of Kratie, nor has he ever visited the province. Moreover, the said "secessionist" movement was in actuality a land dispute between villagers and hundreds of armed government personnel in May. In this incident, villagers were forcibly evicted and a 14-year-old girl was killed.
We are also deeply concerned by the denial of Sonando's request for bail despite clear signs that he has no plans to flee the country, which is evidenced by the fact that he willingly returned to Cambodia, fully aware of arrest threats made against him. The denial of his bail application is particularly unacceptable as there are growing concerns over the health of Sonando, who has reportedly fallen ill in detention.
This is not the first time that Sonando's right to freedom of expression has been violated. He was imprisoned in 2003 for allegedly "announcing false information, inciting people to discriminate, and inciting people to commit crimes". These charges and arrest stemmed from an anonymous caller to Beehive Radio's public opinion segment saying that he, the caller, heard of attacks upon the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok. Sonando was again arrested in 2005 under charges of "defamation, incitement and disinformation" for an interview on border issues aired over Beehive Radio.
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Cambodia is legally obliged to uphold the right to freedom of expression, a fundamental right which is also enshrined in the Cambodian constitution.
We strongly call upon the Cambodian government to immediately release Mam Sonando, and to drop all charges against him. Furthermore, if the trial were to proceed, we urge the government to accord Sonando his right to a fair trial as guaranteed under Cambodian law and the government's international obligations. We also strongly urge the Cambodian government to ensure the wellbeing of Sonando, especially in view of reports of his deteriorating health in detention.
Agnes Callamard is executive director of Article 19; Yap Swee Seng is executive director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development; Gayathry Venkiteswaran is executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance