PHNOM PENH – Hundreds of Cambodians turned out on March 5th and 6th to attend appeals hearings for 72-year-old Cambodian radio station owner and pro-democracy activist Mam Sonando, who is currently facing a widely decried 20-year prison sentence on charges of sedition.
The hearings lasted until midday Wednesday, when court observers reported that the prosecution had requested the most serious charges against Sonando be dropped, and replaced with a lesser charge related to illegal forest clearing — leading long-pessimistic supporters to hope the March 14th verdict may see Sonando finally walk free, after spending 236 days in detention.
Amnesty International Asia researcher Rupert Abbot said that there’s “quite a strong chance” that Sonando will be released on March 14th.
“What the prosecutor is now suggesting is outlandish, but it’s a much shorter sentence, which provides some hope that Mam Sonando will be released soon,” noted Abbot.
The hopeful tone was echoed by political analyst Lao Mong Hay, speaking to reporters after a beatific looking Sonando had left the court in a prison van.
“It’s not the first time the prosecutors have changed the charge,” said Mong Hay, referring to the Boueng Kak 13 case, where thirteen female land rights protesters were eventually released on reduced charges, after initial sentences of up to two and a half years.
Authorities quickly moved to quash the supposed rebellion, igniting a scuffle between villagers and security forces that saw a 14 year old girl die of a gunshot wound.
Cambodian civil society’s appeals to release Sonando and absolve him of the charges fell on deaf ears: on October 1 of 2012, he was sentenced to 20 years of jail for “sedition.” Co-defendants Chan Sovann and Touch Rin received three and five years on related charges.
Mam Sonando’s supporters — largely senior citizens, clad in traditional Khmer scarves and cardboard hats printed for the occasion — repeatedly shouted “Dahkling!” at the court house walls on March 5th, which translates roughly from Khmer into “walk freely.”
The next day, the greatly reduced crowd produced a poster board inscribed with petition signatures in support of Sonando, and watched the gates of the courthouse intently for signs of a resolution.
Association of Democrats undersecretary Pannary Huon waited outside the Court of Appeals with Sonando’s supporters on March 5, hoping but less than hopeful.
“I guess they [the government] is afraid of the elections, and also afraid because a lot of people support Sonando,” she said. “He never did anything wrong, he followed the rules — that’s why it was a crime that they put him in prison.”