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Hundreds of Cambodians crowded into a Phnom Penh courtroom March 14 to witness judges void the 20-year prison sentence for a prominent radio journalist.

Mam Sonando drew the ire of the Cambodian government after reporting on a 2010 stampede that killed 353 people, and the subsequent International Court of Justice complaint alleging Prime Minister Hun Sen was responsible.

72-year-old Sonando owns Beehive Radio, one of a handful of independent broadcasters in the country and “a constant thorn in the side of Cambodia’s prime minister,” The Economist reported.

International and domestic human rights groups championed Sonando’s case as emblematic of the Cambodian government’s media stranglehold. The embattled journalist, who enjoys a Cambodian-French dual citizenship, even garnered the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama and French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Radio Free Asia reported.

Sen accused Sonando of plotting to ferment rebellion in pursuit of an autonomous state in Cambodia’s troubled Kratie province. An indictment by a municipal court formalized the charges soon after.

Sen, who has ruled the country since 1998, has little to lose by acquiescing to the forces that fought for Sonando’s release. In fact, doing so gives his government cover to maintain the exile of opposition leader Sam Rainsy through this year’s elections. Rainsy faces a 12-year prison sentence if he returns to Cambodia and has spent his exile in France. However, the high profile of Sonando’s case has drawn attention to the politicized judicial process Cambodia uses to silence dissent.

By Adam Aton. 

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