Cambodia’s government on Tuesday released two former RFA reporters who had spent more than nine months behind bars on “espionage” charges, a day after the country’s King Norodom Sihamoni granted a pardon for four land activists based on a request by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were taken into custody on Nov. 14 last year and formally charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source.” They have since had “production of pornography” added to the charges against them and face possible jail terms of up to 15 years if convicted.
On Tuesday evening, the two men were freed from Prey Sar Prison and reunited with friends and family following an order by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to release them on bail.
The reporters cautiously welcomed their release while speaking with the media outside of the prison, noting that they must report to the police monthly, have had their passports confiscated, and could be re-arrested at any time.
“We maintain that we are innocent of the charges against us and will continue to do so,” Yeang Sothearin said.
“The authorities confiscated all of our equipment when we were arrested—including the computers and cameras that belong to Uon Chhin—so they had everything, but they still were unable to present evidence of our alleged crimes and never held a trial,” he added.
“We continue to urge the court to drop all charges against us so that we can have the freedom to return to our work.”
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin are widely seen as victims of a crackdown on the opposition, NGOs and independent media by Hun Sen in the lead up to Cambodia’s July 29 general election, which his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won in a landslide victory, securing all 125 parliamentary seats in play.
The ballot was widely seen as unfree and unfair after the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November last year and arrest of its leader Kem Sokha two months earlier amid allegations of a plot to overthrow the government.
After eliminating his main political challenger last year, Hun Sen turned his attention to silencing critics of his rule.
In May, The Phnom Penh Post—Cambodia’s last independent daily—was sold for an unknown sum to a Malaysian investor with ties to Hun Sen following the out-of-court settlement of a U.S. $3.9 million claim by the government for alleged unpaid back taxes, prompting an exodus by several senior members of the newspaper’s reporting staff.
The sale of the Post came less than 10 months after the forced closure of the Cambodia Daily, another independent newspaper that was also pressured over claims of unpaid taxes, and the shuttering of several independent radio programs. RFA closed its operations in Cambodia in September amid government pressure.
When police took Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin into custody in November, they initially said they had been detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio. The reporters were later accused of setting up a studio for RFA and charged with espionage under Article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code.
Cambodia’s Ministries of Information and Interior had warned prior to their arrests that any journalists still working for RFA would be treated as spies.
During the more than nine months of their incarceration, the two reporters were held in separate overcrowded cells, and prohibited from reading newspapers, listening to the radio, or making phone calls.
Multiple local and international rights groups had condemned Hun Sen’s government for its treatment of the two reporters during their detention, demanding that they be freed.
On Tuesday, Am Sam Ath, the head of investigations for local rights group Licadho, continued to press for their unconditional freedom.
“I hope the court dismisses all the charges against the two former RFA reporters because, so far, the court has produced no evidence,” he said.
The granting of bail to Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin came a day after Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni granted royal pardons—at Hun Sen’s behest—to prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny and three others convicted for their roles in a protest over a land grab in the capital Phnom Penh.
Tep Vanny had been imprisoned for more than two years of her 30-month sentence, while the other three activists were granted bail following their convictions.
The activist was awarded the 2013 Vital Voices Global Leadership Award for her work campaigning on behalf of the community evicted from Boeung Kak Lake, which was later filled with sand to make way for a development project with ties to Hun Sen and the CPP.
Hun Sen, who added another five-year term to his 33 years in office after election results were announced last week, has made a practice of heavy-handed crackdowns on his critics, followed by a relaxation of restrictions after facing international condemnation.
Call for release
Also on Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called in a statement for Cambodia to “drop all charges and immediately release” Kem Sokha, ahead of the CNRP chief’s latest bail hearing, scheduled for Wednesday.
Kem Sokha has been held in pre-trial detention for 11 months in Cambodia’s remote Tboung Khmum province, and has been denied bail four times since his arrest.
“The opposition leader Kem Sokha has now been jailed for nearly a year on preposterous treason charges, because he had the audacity to lead an opposition party in Cambodia,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director.
“Governments concerned about the end of democratic rule in Cambodia should demand the immediate release of Kem Sokha and all other political prisoners.”
HRW cited Kem Sokha’s lawyers as saying that the CNRP chief “suffers from serious health problems”—including high blood pressure, severe shoulder pain, and diabetes—but that prison authorities have denied him appropriate medical treatment.
The rights group noted that authorities are holding him in isolation and have refused access to all visitors other than his immediate family and lawyers, and noted that United Nations’ standards prohibit such “indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement,” which it said “may amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” in violation of international law.
On Monday, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed calls by former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a slew of convictions seen as politically motivated, for the government to free Kem Sokha ahead of his bail hearing or risk international condemnation.
“Cambodia’s government doesn’t need legitimacy from anyone or anything, besides the election and the electoral institution,” the spokesman said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.