Cambodia’s Appeals Court on Tuesday upheld an earlier ruling that denied bail to two former RFA reporters arrested last month on charges of “espionage,” according to their lawyer, who vowed to challenge the decision.
Keo Vanny told RFA that the Appeals Court upheld last month’s ruling by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on the grounds that the case involving former RFA Khmer Service reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin is “still under investigation.”
The pair were taken into custody on Nov. 14 by police who initially said they had been detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio. They were later accused of setting up a studio for RFA and were formally charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” under Article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code.
They have been held in pre-trial detention in Prey Sar Prison for 44 days and face a possible jail term of up to 15 years if convicted.
Keo Vanny called Tuesday’s ruling “entirely unfair” and refused to accept it, “given my clients have not committed any offenses related to the charges against them.”
“There are no grounds on which the court should continue to detain my clients since, according to legal principles, the accused should be entitled to their freedom,” he said.
“Granting my clients bail would not cause public chaos,” he added.
It was not immediately clear how Keo Vanny plans to challenge the Appeals Court ruling.
RFA closed its operations in Cambodia in September amid a government crackdown on the media, and the two reporters have denied the charges against them.
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin told the Appeals Court at their hearing Tuesday that they had not sent any state secrets to any foreign nations while working for RFA, according to Keo Vanny, and said they had only reported on land and social issues, which is not prohibited by law.
They also pledged not to flee the country and to continue to cooperate with the court, noting that they had already handed their passports over to the authorities.
On Monday, the pair testified at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in connection with the charges against them.
Call for release
Yoeung Sotheara, legal and monitoring officer at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), echoed Keo Vanny’s call to release the reporters, noting that they had surrendered their passports and their families had signed statements assuming responsibility for them.
He added that the two men are of “sound character” and suggested there is no reason they would not return to the court to participate in future hearings.
“I believe that the case of the [former] RFA reporters is not serious, when compared to other cases involving drug dealing or murder, in which defendants are sometimes granted leniency or bail,” he said.
“The case of the former RFA reporters is not so severe that the court should refuse them bail,” he added.
In November, dozens of journalists signed an open letter calling on court officials to drop their case against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, saying the charges are having a chilling effect on the media and restricting press freedom.
Both the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also called for the release of the journalists in statements last month.
RSF ranked Cambodia 132nd out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, and warned that the Southeast Asian nation is “liable to fall” in next year’s index.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.