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Mam Sonando: Cambodia to free jailed journalist who covered land grabs

Mam Sonando
Local radio station owner Mam Sonando, centre, is escorted by court security personnel as he enters an appeals court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

When the Cambodian government ordered 1,000 village families to leave their homes last spring after awarding their land to a company planning to build a rubber plantation, journalist Mam Sonando reported the news on Beehive Radio, his independent station.

The government’s reaction was swift. The 71-year-old was charged with secession and last October was convicted of leading a secession plot against the government
and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Five months later, lobbying by the U.S. state department and human rights activists such as Amnesty International seems to have worked. Cambodia’s court of appeals today said it had dropped the secession charges against Sonando.

Instead, he’s been charged with illegal logging and given a suspended sentence after serving eight months in prison.

“Today's decision will give hope to other land and forest defenders who are being held by the Cambodian authorities," Oliver Courtney of international campaigns group Global Witness told the Guardian newspaper. "But we should remember that the Cambodian government has been pressured from every side to release Sonando, and in less high-profile cases they're still doing whatever it takes to silence their critics. As the country's land grabbing crisis gets worse, more and more people are getting arrested for speaking out – that has to stop."

Land grabs may be among the most concerning trends of the 21st century. Throughout Africa, private companies are taking control of arable land and straining already scarce water resources.

The same thing is happening in Cambodia, Global Witness says. The watchdog group says nearly 75 per cent of Cambodia’s arable land has been converted to economic zones and awarded to private companies, typically without consultation or compensation to local communities.

More than 400,000 Cambodians have been forced off their land since 2003, the agency says.

At the same time, life has become increasingly difficult for journalists in Cambodia, where the group Reporters Without Borders says authoritarianism and censorship are on the increase. In its 2013 press freedom index, Cambodia placed 143rd among 179 countries surveyed. In 2012, Cambodia was 117th.

In September, another journalist, 44-year-old newspaper reporter Hang Serei, was found dead in the trunk of his car at a cashew plantation. He had been reporting on illegal logging. Earlier in 2012, the conservationist Chut Wutty was shot and killed by a soldier at an illegal logging site.

It’s unclear how soon Sonando might resume his coverage of the dispute in Broma, a village in Cambodia’s northern Kratie province where the agricultural company Casotim has been given land. Last May, hundreds of police officers raided the village and a 14-year-old girl was shot and killed.

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead




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