Family members and colleagues of detained labor and border activist Rong Chhun and youth activist Sar Kanika said they are disappointed that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court denied their bail requests following a hearing on Tuesday.
The two activists did not appear at their hearings because of court concerns over the possible spread of the coronavirus in the prison where they are being held following an outbreak in the country in March.
Rong Vichea, nephew of jailed union leader Rong Chhun, criticized the court’s decision as unjust and urged authorities to release the two activists.
“The court needs to reconsider the case,” he said. “I hope that the government will consider releasing my uncle. As a family member, I am very concerned about his health.”
Rong Chhun, who is also a member of the Cambodian Watchdog Council, was officially charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” and jailed at Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh on Aug. 1, 2020, a day after his arrest for claiming the government had allowed Vietnam to encroach on farmland along the two countries’ shared border.
The arrest of the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Union prompted near daily protests in the capital, and scores of domestic civil society groups demanded that the government release him and drop charges he faces over his criticism of the country’s handling of a border dispute with Vietnam.
Sar Kanika, affiliated with the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was detained and jailed in 2020 after protesting in support of Rong Chhun.
Presiding Judge Li Sokha denied bail for the pair, saying that there were many other defendants involved in the case, and the court would schedule the two trials soon.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong said the reason the prison did not send his clients to the hearing was not the stated concern over COVID-19, but rather the judge’s bias in favor of the prosecutor.
He said he would ask his clients if they want to appeal the decision, though he was uncertain whether the prison in which they are being held would allow him to meet in person with them because of the latest COVID-19 outbreak.
Ouk Chayavy, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, attended the hearing and later said that “the trial is a joke.”
“During the hearing, I was so disappointed with the court officials who are intellectuals with doctorate degrees [because] they are treating the case just like a joke,” she said. “They are trying people who have scarified for the country and helped the country.”
Ouk Chayavy expressed concern about the health of the two activists in the face of a COVID-19 outbreak in the prison where they are being held, and said court officials should have allowed Rong Chhun to appear in person at the hearing because they said he had received virus vaccines.
“It is language to imprison him,” Ouk Chayavy said of concerns the popular activist would stir up the public.
“Rong Chhun did not provoke social chaos as do drug dealers,” she said. “Rong Chhun raised concerns over what the government should or should not do about the border issue.”
RFA could not reach court spokesman Y Rin for comment on Tuesday.
Ex-reporters want cases dropped
Also on Tuesday, former RFA reporters Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin requested that court officials expedite or drop almost four-year-old cases against them, saying that the delay of their trials have violated their rights and freedom and prevented them from finding jobs.
They issued the appeal because the court currently handling their case has been silent since in October 2019 when an appeals court returned it to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for a reinvestigation.
Yeang Sothearin, who worked as an editor, reporter, and news anchor for RFA’s Khmer Service, Uon Chhin, who was an RFA photographer and videographer, 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 amid a government crackdown on independent media.
The two also were slapped with additional charges for illegally producing pornography in March 2018.
If convicted of the first charge, they could face a jail term of between seven and 15 years. They remain out on bail but in legal limbo after a series of appeals have been rejected by courts.
Yeang Sothearin told RFA that he has unjustly lost his freedom more than three years due to groundless allegations made by authorities. He urged the court and authorities to stop persecuted him.
“It is appropriate that the court drop charges against me,” Yeang Sothearin told RFA.
“The court detained me for about one year though I have not committed any crime, and the investigation has been a failure. There is no evidence with which to charge me.”
Uon Chhin told RFA that the investigating judge has not questioned them yet, and he urged the court to drop the case.
“I don’t know for how long they want to persecute us,” he said. “Please end the case and drop all the charges so we can resume our freedom and find jobs to support our families.”
RFA could not reach court spokesman Y Rin for comment.
Court prosecutor Plang Sophal declined to comment on the case, saying that it was beyond his role as a prosecutor as an investigating judge is working on the case.
The pair’s attorney, Sam Chamroeun, told RFA that he will request that the investigating judge send the case to trial if the court does not question his clients, adding that the delay has seriously violated their rights.
“All laws require court cases to be processed [quickly] so that justice will be delivered quicker,” he said, adding that the holdup of the case has affected his clients’ chances of a fair trial, affected their reputations, and prevented them from being able to travel freely and find jobs.
Nop Vy, executive director of the Cambodian journalists’ association CamboJa, said that retaining charges against the two former reporters is detrimental to press freedom and affect other reporters who fear that the same thing may happen to them.
“We have observed that the charges against the two people is very unjust for them, while the court has failed to investigate the case thoroughly and independently,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.