|Freed from prison on Friday, Mam Sonando is carried on the shoulders of his jubilant supporters. (Siv Channa)|
March 18, 2013
By Khy Sovuthy
The Cambodia Daily
Cheering, clapping and a little bit of dancing greeted Mam Sonando after he was released from prison on Friday morning, with more than 1,000 supporters, including traditional Chaiyam musicians, lining the muddy roads around Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison to see the popular radio station owner walk free.
Beaming with smiles and keeping his hands pressed together in front of his chest in the respectful “sompea” greeting, Mr. Sonando was lifted off his feet by his enthusiastic supporters who placed him in a makeshift sedan chair, which was hauled onto the shoulders of several strong men.
Dressed in navy slacks, a light blue shirt and striped tie, with a baseball cap sporting the name of his “Association of Democrats” NGO, Mr. Sonando looked more like a politician on the election campaign trail than a just-released prisoner.
“Firstly, I would like to thank all Cambodian people in Cambodia and abroad. I am happy that I have been freed. But freedom nowadays is not enough, not 100 percent yet. Our people need freedom,” Mr. Sonando told the crowd, his voice amplified with the use of a megaphone.
“What we want is our people’s freedom,” he continued to cheers from the crowd.
“’I thank all the people, because of the people I was able to have freedom.”
As he was carried along on the shoulders of the crowd, Mr. Sonando said that he wanted to pray at the Ang Metrey pagoda beside Prey Sar prison, but the gates of the wat were, unusually, still locked at 9:30 a.m., which led some supporters of the radio station owner to suspect a conspiracy.
Mr. Sonando also told the crowd that his freedom was not enough; he now had to clear his name of the charges brought against him by the government, and which saw him imprisoned for more than eight months until the Appeal Court on Thursday overturned his original 20-year sentence.
“I did nothing wrong against the law,” he said. “I now need to struggle to protect my reputation. That is important to me,” he added.
In one of the most criticized court cases in recent years, Mr. Sonando, 72, was accused last year of providing mostly intellectual support to a so-called rebel movement in Kratie province. Though the government had branded hundreds of residents of Broma village rebels after their months of protests over a land dispute with a Vietnamese-owned rubber plantation, the only casualty in the whole affair was a 14-year-old girl, Heng Chantha, who was shot dead by police or military when they mounted a massive operation against Broma. That operation succeeded in evicting hundreds of families who had taken part in the land dispute.
Mr. Sonando was arrested in July and found guilty in October and sentenced to 20 years in jail. However, amid an international and national outcry, including U.S. President Barack Obama personally asking Prime Minister Hun Sen to free Mr. Sonando, and all other “political prisoners,” his fortune changed in court. On Thursday, the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh overturned Mr. Sonando’s conviction on insurrection and incitement charges, cut his 20 years sentence to just five years, and then promptly suspended that sentence too, ordering his immediate release.
Two other people arrested and charged alongside Mr. Sonando also had their prison sentences suspended—like Mr. Sonando—to time served. The two, Touch Ream and Kan Sovann, however, were not released on Friday but are due for release on Saturday, said Chan Soveth, deputy head of monitoring at local rights group Adhoc. A fourth prisoner involved in the case, Phorn Sroeun, will also be released with Mr. Ream and Mr. Sovann, he said.
Amid the celebrations of Mr. Sonando’s release, questions were also being asked on Friday about the very legitimacy of the courts that had prosecuted him in the first place.
“I cannot accept the activity of those that arrested him and then released him from prison,” said the Venerable Ly Channen, 38, a monk, who was part of the crowd that greeted Mr. Sonando on his release.
‘The government must pay compensation to him, from $5 million to $500 million,” he said, as Mr. Sonando was carried on the sedan chair to a waiting truck, full of supporters, which took him to his home in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district.
As the celebrations ended, Sok Kim, 77, from Pur Senchey district in Phnom Penh, said that Mr. Sonando was a rare, brave voice in an era of fear.
“Mam Sonando is a political case…they want to threaten people who dare to speak the truth because, at the present, when someone speaks the truth they disappear or they are killed,” Mr. Kim said.