A Cambodian court on Thursday cut the 20-year prison sentence handed down to a land rights campaigner for inciting villagers to secede, a case that attracted international condemnation, and he is likely to walk free this week.
Mam Sonando, a 72-year-old radio broadcaster, was convicted last year of leading a rebellion against the state in the eastern province of Kratie, where villagers were protesting against a company that encroached on their land to expand a rubber plantation.
A three-judge panel at the Appeals Court cut his sentence to five years and ordered him to serve just eight months, suspending the rest of the term, which makes him eligible to go free.
Mam Sonando’s conviction threw the international spotlight on Cambodia’s poor human rights record and, during a visit to the country last November, U.S. President Barack Obama pressed Prime Minister Hun Sen to end abuses.
«We welcome Mam Sonando’s imminent release, which is a step in the right direction for freedom of expression in Cambodia,» Rupert Abbott, a researcher for Amnesty International, said in a statement. «But Mam Sonando should never have been imprisoned in the first place and the convictions that stand appear baseless.»
Mam Sonando, the owner of independent Beehive Radio and a long-time critic of Hun Sen, has joint French and Cambodian citizenship and his case was brought up by French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault during a visit to Cambodia in February.
This week, France agreed to provide $48 million in aid to Cambodia, a former colony, for projects related to water treatment, irrigation and fighting disease.
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 concessions to companies and then evicting residents by force.