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(New York) – The Cambodian government should release and drop all charges against Mam Sonando, the owner of Cambodia’s main politically independent radio station and prominent critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The authorities arrested Mom Sanando at his home on the morning of July 15, 2012, and charged him under six sections of the penal code, which could result in a prison sentence of up to 30 years.

Hun Sen publicly called for Sonando’s arrest on June 26, when Sonando was out of the country and the Cambodian government was preparing to host the Regional Forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was held last week in Phnom Penh and included the participation of non-ASEAN members – the United States, Japan, Australia, and China. The forum also serves as a precursor for the larger East Asia Summit, which takes place in November. Sonando returned to Cambodia during the ASEAN meeting, but the authorities did not arrest him until the ASEAN meeting was finished and most international media had departed. Sonando’s arrest came two days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s departure from the country.

 “Sonando’s arrest on the heels of Clinton’s visit is a brazen signal that Hun Sen thinks that the US wants his cooperation on other matters so much that he isn’t afraid to lower the boom on his critics,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “He may have gotten that impression after the US and other delegations neglected to publicly comment on the country’s rapidly deteriorating human rights situation. The US now needs to take strong and public steps to pick up the pieces.”

During Clinton’s visit, the US and other ASEAN nations focused on regional security and economic issues, largely ignoring rights issues. Sonando’s arrest suggests that Hun Sen concluded that increasing international engagement with Cambodia and its accelerating integration into the regional and world economies means that human rights issues will continue to be relegated to a minor place in the context of Cambodia’s international relations.

Sonando is a veteran critic of Hun Sen and his rule who has been arrested twice before for non-violent political activities. He owns Beehive Radio, the most outspoken and politically independent radio station in Cambodia. Electronic media in Cambodia are almost entirely controlled by the government, such as Apsara TV and Bayon TV, the latter being under the control of Hun Sen’s daughter. Sonando is also the president of the Association of Democrats, a small nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights and democracy education.

Hun Sen’s original public statement alleged that as president of the Association of Democrats, Sonando was linked to a supposed secessionist movement based in Prama village in Kratie province, where people have protested against what they allege is land-grabbing by a rubber company. From May 15 to May 17, Prama village was the target of a military-style siege and attack, during which a 14-year-old girl, Heng Chantha, was shot to death by security forces. No one has been arrested for the girl’s killing, and it appears that no investigation is taking place. However, Hun Sen has directly involved himself in legal proceedings against five villagers accused of being the local leaders of the movement to create a state-within-a-state, said by Hun Sen to be backed by Sonando. The Association of Democrats and the five accused deny involvement in any plot to conduct an uprising to establish a miniscule “autonomous zone” in Kratie.

“Instead of holding the soldier and his superiors responsible for killing a 14-year-old girl, Hun Sen has instead come up with a bizarre claim that a poor, rural village was attempting to secede from Cambodia and the country’s most important media critic was somehow part of this conspiracy,” Adams said. “The narrative would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so tragic.”

Wild assertions against critics have been the stock-in-trade of Hun Sen’s intelligence and propaganda agencies for decades. They have been repeatedly used to justify acts of violent repression and the wrongful imprisonment of protesters, critics, and opposition politicians. Responding to these most recent accusations, the 72-year-old head of the Kratie branch of the Association of Democrats, Vich Kimchoan, said the group worked only to “educate the people about human rights, freedom and democracy.”

Sonando’s arrest is also an attack on Beehive Radio, which is a key platform for promotion of human rights and democracy in Cambodia. The station provides air time for all points of view, including Cambodian civil society, the fight against HIV/AIDS, maternal mortality and human trafficking, campaigns for women’s rights and gender equality, political and economic transparency, equitable and sustainable development, labor rights, environmental protection, the rule of law, and electoral education and election monitoring.

The arrest was carried out amidst reports that the government-dominated National Election Committee may soon attempt to prevent opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, earlier forced into exile after being sentenced in absentia to 12 years’ imprisonment on trumped-up charges, from campaigning from abroad on behalf of his Sam Rainsy Party in the 2013 national elections. This has prompted fears that the government may be about to take legal action against Kem Sokha, the leader of an opposition party that has been negotiating a merger with the Sam Rainsy Party, and to prosecute the activist Buddhist monk Luon Sovat, who was briefly and arbitrarily detained on May 24 after being secretly charged on frivolous grounds.

Human Rights Watch criticized ASEAN and East Asia Summit members for their silence during the recent meetings in Phnom Penh.

“In the past three months a prominent environmentalist has been killed, a young girl was killed in a military siege, an activist Buddhist monk was threatened with arrest, the political opposition leader kept in forced exile, and a crucial media figure was accused of a preposterous crime,” Adams said. “Yet Clinton and regional leaders swept in and out of Cambodia without even addressing the situation. It is time to wake up and stop pretending that more economic and military engagement will magically turn things around.”

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