A court in Cambodia’s capital on Friday extended the pretrial detention of two former RFA reporters who have spent more than six months behind bars on “espionage” charges, widely viewed as politically motivated.
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.
The pair deny the charges, but have been denied bail from pretrial detention. No date has been set for the hearing of their case.
On Friday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court decided to prolong the detention of Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin “for the sake of the investigation” into their case, court spokesman Ly Sophanna told RFA’s Khmer Service following the ruling.
Keo Vanny, the lawyer representing the two reporters, told RFA that he was disheartened by the court’s decision, saying the pair are not at risk of flight as they have “no reason to flee.”
“They have committed no crimes and if they were considering fleeing the country, they never would have cooperated with authorities … before their arrest,” he said.
“It is very unfair to continue detaining them, given the fact that they have been very cooperative throughout the proceedings. The prosecution has no well-founded evidence to continue their detention and I will appeal this decision.”
Speaking to RFA after the ruling, Yeang Sothearin’s wife Lam Chantha said the decision had left her distraught.
“I’m shocked to hear that my husband’s detention is extended — it’s very unfair for him … and I’m certain that he has done nothing wrong,” she said.
“Our whole family is very upset. We had been praying for his release. All of us expected the court to release him today.”
Heng Sina, Uon Chhin’s wife, told RFA that her “heart stopped” when she heard the ruling.
“Since hearing that his detention was extended, I have become very desperate and hopeless,” she said. “He has been unfairly incarcerated for six months already. He should be released.”
The detention of Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin is seen as part of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the independent media in a bid to shut down criticism of his leadership and ensure his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) remains in power following a general election set for July 29.
Earlier this month, 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.
Last weekend, in marking their six months in detention, New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on authorities to “immediately and unconditionally” release Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who it said were arrested amid Hun Sen’s crackdown that had caused countless journalists, activists and opposition members to flee Cambodia.
“Ahead of July’s national elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been filling Cambodia’s prisons with journalists, activists, and politicians,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said at the time.
“In its reprisals against RFA for its critical reporting, the government has concocted absurd espionage charges against former journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who should be freed immediately.”
In a separate statement, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) called the charges against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin “a direct assault on freedom of the media and designed to frighten other journalists into silence.”