A prisoner of conscience in Cambodia is set free. But that does not mean the country is becoming any more welcoming of dissent.

Cambodian radio station owner and human rights activist Mam Sonando has been released, in a surprising reversal of policy that has many Cambodians and Cambodia-watchers genuinely shocked. Analysts are now questioning whether the release constituted an official indication that Cambodia’s top-brass are lightening up on freedom of speech — or if it was instead a somewhat cynical attempt at displaying tolerance for democracy to both local and international critics.The drama began in October of 2012, when Sonando was arrested on charges that he had attempted to foment a separatist revolution in the remote province of Kratie, though in fact the 72-year-old, who holds French citizenship, was not even the country at the time.

During the crackdown on these so-called secessionists (angered over official land-grabbing, but with little aspiration of actual separatism), security forces fatally shot and killed a 14-year-old girl in a violent land eviction, a murder which was officially deemed a “accident” and never fully investigated.

Sonando, who had only broadcast charges against Hun Sen in an international court on his radio station, proved an easy scapegoat in the incident: he bravely returned to Cambodia and was promptly sentenced to a 20 year long prison sentence on sedition charges.

The world reacted with speed: Amnesty International deemed him a prisoner of conscience, US President Obama demanded Sonando be released during his decidedly awkward pow-wow with Hun Sen during his ASEAN visit in November. French President Francoise Hollande,US assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, various NGOs, and others also condemned his arrest publicly and often.

When Sonando’s sentence came up for appeal on March 5th, streams of supporters, many elderly and frail, came out to the court to advocate for him. Surprisingly, no military police had appeared to scatter the supporters or intimidate them with hard plastic riot shields, even as the gathered hundreds partially blocked the busy street running by the appeals court.

Shouting “Dakhing!” over and over (which translates into “walk freely”), Sonando’s supporters threatened Cambodian curses on those who would keep Sonando in custody, and demanded to be allowed to share the burden of custody with him. One elderly man told me that he ridden his bicycle all the way across town, in the profound heat of a Phnom Penh March, to attend the proceedings.

By March 6th, it was revealed that the prosecutors had decided to suggest dropping the two worst charges against Sonando and replace them with a decidedly lesser charge of “destruction to the forest,” a legislative bait and switch that’s been used in Cambodia before, in the case against a prominent group of land grabbing activists.

When the ruling finally came on March 14th, the news was good: Sonando was to be freed, his sentence reduced to five years with four years and four months of that suspended. Two men convicted alongside Sonando on similar charges, Kan Sovan/Chan Sovann, and Touch Siem/Touch Rin also had their sentences reduced and were slated to walk.

He walked out of prison early on March 15th to a crowd of hundreds exultant supporters, who trailed him across town from Pray Sar prison back to his home outside of Phnom Penh. He was soon enough back in his old Beehive Radio office: beaten, but unbowed.Did they imprison him in the first place out fear? That was the stance of Association of Democrats Pannary Huon, who was visible releasing symbolic flights of birds into the air as she and her supporters waited for the ruling on March 5.

“I guess they [the government] is afraid of the elections, and also afraid because a lot of people support Sonando,” she told me. “He never did anything wrong, he followed the rules, that’s why it was a crime they put him in prison.”

But it is more than likely that fear explains why he walked into freedom on March 15th as well: fear by the government of international condemnation, and fear that the people’s uncomfortable attention to the case will prove troublesome for the Cambodian People’s Party in the upcoming elections.

He is only one man, and, the ruling party likely hopes, is sufficiently chastened to remain quiet for a while, as the July elections approach.

Meanwhile, to avoid the illusion that Cambodia’s leaders are entirely ceding to international requests, the government has lashed out against Amnesty International and other NGOs and individual who condemned Mam Sonando’s arrest, deeming them enemies of the Cambodian constitution — although critique of Obama and other international leaders has remained curiously absent.

The question remains: who will gather in droves as yet another peasant protesting land grabbing is disenfranchised, or as yet more of Cambodia’s dwindling natural resources are auctioned off to the highest well-connected bidder, or when yet another journalist turns up dead under mysterious circumstances? In my opinion, international observers would be foolish in the extreme to assume that this ruling indicates that Cambodia is becoming more free.

Photo credit: Faine Greenwood

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