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Cambodian Court Case Stokes Fear Of Crackdown

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A court in Cambodia has convicted a prominent journalist and pro-democracy activist on charges of convincing villagers in eastern Cambodia to rise up and declare independence from the country. Civic groups say the case is part of a worrying trend of government efforts to stifle freedom of expression, and attempts to take land away from farmers.

Hundreds of supporters vented their fury outside the courthouse Monday as judges sentenced Mam Sonando to 20 years in jail. Speaking before the verdict, his wife, Dinn Phanara, says the case was politically motivated.

"To be frank, the government has threatened my husband with imprisonment in order to keep him from teaching people about the rule of law and democracy," Dinn Phanara said. "His efforts have won him a lot of popular support. He is a patriot."

Political Moves Ahead Of Elections

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says the case is part of a wider crackdown on dissent. He says the country's mercurial prime minister, Hun Sen, is especially intolerant of any challenge to his authority ahead of next year's general election, which could be hotly contested.

"I think Hun Sen is more than nervous about the 2013 election," Ou Virak says. "It's paranoia. I think he's starting to see enemies everywhere. The challenge to his strongman image and his grip on power is coming from all over the place."

Hun Sen is a former commander in the Khmer Rouge, which killed off roughly a quarter of Cambodia's population during its four-year rule, beginning in 1975. He has been in power through several governments stretching back to 1985. In an age when Southeast Asia's authoritarian regimes are mostly headed by colorless technocrats, Hun Sen stands out as an old-school political strongman.

Critics of Hun Sen say that Mam Sonando, who runs the activist group Association of Democrats, came into the government's cross hairs for trying to help farmers in the village of Pro Ma in Kratie province organize to protect their land. The land was granted to a Russian-owned agribusiness, and some villagers refused to leave.

Mam Sonando also runs Beehive Radio, one of the few private broadcasters in Cambodia that is critical of the government, and rents airtime to opposition parties. Ou Virak adds that Mam Sonando particularly angered Hun Sen by interviewing the head of a California-based Cambodian exile group that is suing the Cambodian government for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

An Unlikely Place To Secede

Observers say the increase in land disputes in Cambodia stems from a lack of transparency in government policymaking, and inadequate enforcement of the country's laws. The U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia said in a report last month that land grabs are fueling popular anger at government corruption and the rising human cost of economic development.

The idea that Pro Ma, little more than a clearing in the jungle just east of the Mekong River, could become an independent nation is a bitter joke to the villagers.

During the rainy season, the jungle trails leading to the village become a series of quagmires, barely navigable by motorcycle and on foot. The village is little more than farmhouses, people and chickens.

"The soldiers came and told us they were here to rescue us from the secessionists," one villager says, speaking in her home built on stilts. "They took our farmland, and now they won't allow us to go back to tend to our crops."

Authorities have warned villagers to remain silent, so they asked that their names not be used. Another villager says soldiers robbed him at gunpoint. He points to a sack of rice and says he's running out of food.

"If we try to go back to our fields, the authorities will accuse us of resisting them," he says. "We are just unarmed civilians, and it's getting difficult for us to live here. If we don't get our land back, I'll have to go elsewhere to make a living."

Soldiers who tried to evict the villagers in May shot a 14-year-old girl to death.

Troubling Trends

In June, Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly warned groups to steer clear of the issue.

"Do you want to support this effort to create a state within a state and incite violence?" Hun said. "I regret the death of the girl. It was not intentional. Who caused this? It was the Association of Democrats."

While Cambodia's economy is expected to grow by about 7 percent this year, many observers see its democracy as regressing. The German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung recently ranked Cambodia's democracy 105th out of 128 developing countries, down from 88th out of 125 four years ago.

President Obama is expected to visit Cambodia next month to attend a regional summit. The White House has yet to confirm his attendance, but Ou Virak wants to use the visit to focus the president's attention on human rights issues. Others, including parliamentarian Mu Sochua, say that because of these issues, the president should just not come at all.

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