PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A Cambodian court jailed a 71-year-old radio broadcaster and land-rights campaigner for 20 years on Monday after finding him guilty of leading an anti-state rebellion, a verdict condemned by activists as a further crackdown on human rights.
Three judges in the Phnom Penh court convicted Sonando, who has joint Cambodian-French citizenship, and 13 others of inciting villagers in eastern Kratie province to rebel against the government.
Sonando, a long-time rights campaigner and critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen, stood accused of inciting villagers to take up arms and of aiming to recruit up to a million people to topple the government, charges his supporters say were trumped up.
Hun Sen urged in a nationally broadcast speech in June that Sonando be arrested for masterminding “a plot to overthrow the government and attempting to establish a state within a state”.
Sonando, the head of Beehive Radio, had pleaded not guilty.
The number of land disputes in Cambodia has exploded in recent years as the economy grows rapidly and companies move to exploit natural resources such as rubber, sugar, and minerals.
Human rights groups have accused Hun Sen’s authoritarian government of riding roughshod over land rights by granting huge economic land concessions to companies and then evicting land-dwellers by force.
The World Bank froze new lending to Cambodia last year and said it would not resume loans until the government did something to help hundreds of families facing eviction from land around a lake in Phnom Penh.
A spokesperson for the EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement that the conviction “raises severe doubts about the impartiality and independence of the court”.
The EU has come under pressure from activists to freeze a trade initiative that allows Cambodia to export goods tariff-free to Europe. Critics say it has contributed to land grabs in sectors such as sugar production.
Sonando’s supporters say he was persecuted for criticizing the government. He raised a victory sign as he was led, handcuffed, to a prison van after the verdict, saying he was “proud”.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the court had not produced any evidence to support a guilty verdict.
“I am really disappointed that after many decades our court is not a respectable institution that can find justice for people,” he said. “I see that the verdict was written by politicians.”
The court sentenced two other defendants to 30 and 15 years in jail in absentia.
“Today’s verdict only serves to demonstrate, yet again, that the courts in Cambodia have been increasingly used as a tool for repression,” the International Federation for Human Rights said in a statement.
The U.N. Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur for Cambodia said last week that Cambodia’s population was growing “increasingly desperate and unhappy” over land-rights abuses.
In recent months, one of Cambodia’s leading environmental campaigners was shot dead and a journalist who wrote about land issues was found dead in the trunk of a car.
In Kratie province, a 14-year-old girl was killed in May when security forces fired on villagers whom Sonando was found guilty of assisting.
Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Nick Macfie