Cambodian authorities should drop the “politically motivated” charges against two former RFA reporters accused of “espionage,” New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Thursday, ahead of an appeal of a decision to place them under court supervision.
On March 15, the Phnom Penh Court ordered the case against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin to proceed to trial, 16 months after the two were taken into custody in November 2017 and charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” under article 445 of the Criminal Code, an offense punishable by a prison term of 7 to 15 years.
While Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were released on bail in August last year, the decision in March saw the two journalists placed under court supervision, which bars them from changing their addresses or traveling abroad, and requires them to check in with their local police station once a month.
On Thursday, HRW called for their release ahead of a June 21 appeal hearing that will challenge the decision to place them under court supervision.
“The two former RFA journalists are victims of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s unending attack on media outlets that dare air critical reports about the government,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director.
“There’s no basis for the ludicrous charges against these two reporters or for forcing them into judicial supervision. The court should drop both the charges and supervision arrangements immediately.”
Both journalists have maintained that they are innocent of the charges against them, and say they will be vindicated if the case goes to trial. A date for the hearing has not been set.
Uon Chhin told RFA that he was stuck in limbo because of the case.
“I don’t have any money and I want to restart my previous job, but I can’t,” he said, noting that his equipment has not been returned. “I don’t have any legal documents,” he added.
Part of wider crackdown
Yeang Sothearin told RFA that since the court stripped his travel rights he couldn’t participate in workshops or fellowships overseas even though he was selected. Neither could he travel to Vietnam to visit his sick parents.
“My parents are ill and they can’t come to visit me in Cambodia. I have not seen them since I was released,” he said.
The two reporters’ lawyer urged the court to heed their requests
“They are good people. They should not be placed under the authorities’ watch,” said their lawyer, Sam Chamroeun.
RFA closed its nearly 20-year old bureau in Phnom Penh on Sept. 12, 2017 amid a growing crackdown by Prime Minister Hun’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on the political opposition, NGOs and independent media ahead of national elections in July last year, in what was seen as a bid to silence criticism of his government. The CPP handily won the ballot, securing all 125 seats in parliament.
The ongoing crackdown has drawn condemnation from the West and HRW said Thursday that the European Union should take the case against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin into consideration as it weighs whether to suspend Cambodia’s tariff-free exports to the bloc under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme because of the government’s rollbacks on democratic freedoms.
“The European Union should be mindful of the trial of Sothearin and Chhin when deciding whether to drop Cambodia from the Everything But Arms trade benefits,” Adams said.
“The EU should call for this case to be dropped and all harassment of media outlets and their reporters ended.”
Textbook arbitrary detention
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 Uon 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.
Their release on bail followed condemnation from multiple local and international rights groups over their treatment during detention, and demands that they be freed.
On May 29, 2019, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that the “violations of the right to a fair trial are of such gravity as to give the deprivation of liberty of Mr. Uon and Mr. Yeang an arbitrary character,” and said the article under which the two were charged is too vague, and therefore not in line with Cambodia’s international human rights obligations.
On Thursday, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin dismissed HRW’s statement, saying it had “no value for the court” and would “not impact the court’s decision” at the appeal hearing on June 21, during which the journalists will ask for the return of their confiscated equipment and an end to restrictions on their travel.
“Based on the law, only the court can decide whether an individual has committed a crime,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that the two journalists should be prepared to provide evidence to the court if they hope to win their appeal.
HRW’s statement came as Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for the withdrawal of all charges against a Cambodian fixer for Russian state-owned TV network RT whose trial is expected to reach a verdict on June 26.
Rath Rott Mony was detained for more than six months for “defaming Cambodia” after helping a visiting crew from the Russian state-owned TV network RT to make a documentary about child prostitution in Cambodia that was broadcast in October 2018.
The fixer had fled Cambodia for Thailand to seek asylum, but was arrested by Thai police on Dec. 7 last year and handed back to Cambodian authorities five days later.
He faces up to three years in prison and up to U.S. $50,000 in damages to plaintiffs if found guilty.
“The decision that is taken by Kao Sao, the judge hearing the case against Rath Rott Mony, will have major implications for the Cambodian justice system’s credibility,” Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk said in a statement Thursday.
“What with police manipulation of witnesses, disregard of the evidence and arguments submitted by the defence, and bias in favour of the prosecution, it is time to end this judicial sham and free Rath Rott Mony. His only crime was helping to shed light on a subject of public interest.”
Rath Rott Mony’s sister, Rath Chanthol, monitored her brother’s trial and told RFA that the trial against her brother was biased toward the prosecution and plaintiff teams.
“To me, the court is biased, but I hope that the court will acquit my brother because he has not done nothing wrong. He was a translator,” she said. “He was hired to do the translation, he finished his job and the documentary was done.”
RSF ranked Cambodia 142nd out of 180 countries in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, down from 132nd in 2017, citing the crackdown on independent media in the lead up to last year’s election.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.