(Adds statement from EU)
PHNOM PENH, Oct 1 (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
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 criticising
the government. He raised a victory sign as he was led,
handcuffed, to a prison van after the verdict, saying he was
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
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)