Global Witness welcomes today’s ruling by Cambodia’s Court of Appeal to free longstanding government critic Mam Sonando. The decision provides a glimmer of light in the fight to end the repression of activists who speak out against the state-sponsored land grabbing crisis gripping the country.
72-year old Sonando has been a longstanding critic of Cambodian Prime Minster Hun Sen, and had been arrested twice before being sentenced to 20 years behind bars in October 2012. The charges, which accused Sonando of leading a village in Kratie province to secede from the Kingdom of Cambodia, had been widely dismissed and condemned by governments across the world. No evidence to back up the claims was presented during Sonando’s hearing in Phnom Penh, and seven of the key witnesses failed to turn up.
Today, judges dropped the charge against Sonando of leading an insurrection and replaced it with a minor forestry-related sentence, according to the Phnom Penh Post. His sentence was cut to five years, then suspended to eight months, most of which Sonando has already served.
“The Court of Appeal have at last bowed to international pressure and freed an innocent man”, said Oliver Courtney from Global Witness. “But what about all the other land and forest defenders currently rotting in prison, whose cases don’t get such attention? The Sonando verdict is a welcome reprieve, but the fundamental problem still remains - the authorities must end the repression of those trying to stop the plunder of Cambodia’s land and forests.”
Cambodia has leased out more than 2 million hectares of land to companies for plantations since 2008 - almost as much as the country allocates to rice, the staple of most Cambodian diets. With a general election approaching in July, repression and harassment of those trying to defend the country’s land has got dramatically worse, with 2012 seeing a 144 per cent increase in land-related arrests on 2011. Just yesterday, police launched a brutal attack on 60 protesters from the Boeung Kak Lake community who have been fighting to keep their homes since 2008.