PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian appeals court on Thursday overturned the widely criticized conviction of a prominent government critic who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for an alleged secessionist plot, closing a case that one rights group called a "politically motivated farce."
Phnom Penh Appeals Court Judge Khun Leang Meng ruled there was no evidence to support a lower court's finding that radio station owner Mam Sonando had links to a rebellion, the basis of his conviction.
Hundreds of people who had gathered outside the courthouse cheered the decision. The 71-year-old broadcaster is expected to be freed from prison later this week.
Mam Sonando has been jailed since October on four counts of insurrection and rebellion based on alleged ties to a secessionist movement in eastern Cambodia that is blamed for a violent conflict over land-grabbing. He denied any involvement.
Thursday's ruling dismissed those charges, and the judge converted Mam Sonando's 20-year jail term to a suspended sentence, saying the court still found the broadcaster guilty of inciting villagers to destroy state land but would not require him to serve additional prison time.
Mam Sonando's Beehive Radio is one of Cambodia's few radio stations broadcasting criticism of Prime Minister Hun Sen's government.
The case was the latest to fuel widespread concerns among rights groups that Cambodia's courts act under political pressure.
A month before Mam Sonando was detained in July, Hun Sen had called for his arrest, alleging that he was leading a plot to overthrow the government and establish a state within a state.
The London-based rights group Global Witness welcomed the court's reversal but said the case should not have come to court in the first place.
"This whole hearing was a politically motivated farce, and a reduction in the sentence of an innocent man should not distract from that," said Oliver Courtney of Global Witness. "No evidence against Sonando was presented, and none of the seven key witnesses even showed up to court."
"We should remember that the Cambodian government has been pressured from every side to release Sonando, but in less high-profile cases they're still doing whatever it takes to silence their critics," Courtney said.
Human rights group Amnesty International had called the conviction "shocking and baseless" and said it "reflects the deteriorating situation of freedom of expression in Cambodia."