Cambodian Court Postpones Ruling on Reinvestigation of Spying Charges Against RFA Reporters

A court in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Monday postponed its ruling on a request by two former RFA reporters to drop a reinvestigation into espionage charges against them, saying it will deliver its decision on Jan. 28.

Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin—who had worked as an editor, reporter and news anchor, and a photographer and videographer for RFA’s Khmer Service, respectively—were taken into custody in November 2017 and charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” after RFA closed its bureau in the capital in September that year.

On Dec. 30, the court rejected an appeal by the two reporters to halt a reinvestigation into separate charges of producing pornography, allowing a new investigation into those charges to proceed.

Speaking to reporters following Monday’s hearing, Yeang Sothearin said that court investigators have already had “lots of time to work on our cases,” adding, “I feel like they are treating us as political hostages.”

“I expect the Appeals Court judges to now fully consider the arguments of our defense lawyer and provide justice for us,” he said.

Also speaking following the hearing, Uuon Chhin said that if their case is delayed much longer, “there will be no end to our mistreatment and harassment.”

“Now we can neither travel freely or find permanent jobs like normal people,” he said. “So the longer this goes on, the more we will have to suffer.”

‘A tool to silence the press’

Local and international rights groups and legal observers have meanwhile condemned the treatment of Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin in the courts as part of a wider attack on the media in Cambodia and called for their release.

In a Jan. 19 statement, Human Rights Watch noted that on Oct. 3, 2019, a trial judge ruled that a two-year investigation into the charges against the two reporters had failed to produce sufficient evidence to convict them.

“However, instead of dismissing the case he sent it for reinvestigation,” HRW said.

“Cambodian authorities have treated the former RFA journalists as criminals by manufacturing a farcical case against them,” HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robinson said. “The authorities should drop the charges and end the ceaseless judicial harassment of these two journalists.”

Meanwhile, on Jan. 16, the American Bar Association noted in a statement that the pretrial treatment of Chhin and Sothearin had been marked by “significant due process abuses, including violations of the right to be informed of the reasons for arrest, the right to communicate with counsel, and the prohibition against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment,” the Association said.

“Further, the detention of Mr. Chhin and Mr. Sothearin was arbitrary.”

“The evidence suggests that the men were actually detained on the basis of their work for RFA, which entailed reporting critical of the government,” the Association said.

Meanwhile, “the trial court’s order permitting a second investigation into Chhin and Sothearin’s conduct absence any evidence of guilt was inconsistent with the journalists’ right to the presumption of innocence,” the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s Trial Watch Initiative said in a statement, also on Jan. 16.

“[In] Chhin and Sothearin’s case, the Cambodian Prosecution Service and judiciary are not enforcing the law but functioning as a tool to silence the press,” the Foundation said.

Media restrictions

RFA closed its nearly 20-year-old bureau in Phnom Penh on Sept. 12, 2017 amid a crackdown by Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) that also saw the Supreme Court dissolve the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) a month later.

The move paved the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to sweep the ballot in national elections in 2018, effectively turning Cambodia into a one-party state.

Cambodian journalists working for RFA had reported over the years on corruption, illegal logging, and forced evictions, among other stories largely ignored by pro-government media, and authorities had already closed independent radio stations carrying RFA reports, using a pretext of tax and administrative violations.

The arrest of Uong Chhin and Yeang Sothearin came after a warning from Cambodia’s Ministries of Information and Interior that any journalists still working for RFA after its office in the capital closed would be treated as spies.

They were released on bail in August 2018, but were placed under court supervision, which barred them from changing their addresses or traveling abroad, and required them to check in with their local police station once a month.

Reported and translated by RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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