Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to hand back the passports of two former RFA reporters being investigated on charges of espionage, but returned the ID card of one of the two men.
Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin—who had worked as an editor, reporter and news anchor, and a photographer and videographer for RFA’s Khmer Service, respectively—were taken into custody in November 2017.
They were charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” after RFA closed its bureau in the capital in September that year and have been in limbo, unable to travel outside of Cambodia.
Uon Chhin’s personal identification card will now be returned to him, but authorities will still retain both men’s passports, the Supreme Court said in its ruling on Wednesday.
He can now use his ID to apply for certain documents he needs, but his passport is needed for him to travel abroad for health checkups and professional training, Uon Chhin told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday.
“We are being deprived of opportunities to improve our knowledge and experience,” he said.
“Our period of court supervision ended a while ago, so why do they still want to retain our passports, which have nothing to do with the truth of our case?” said Yeang Sothearin, also speaking to RFA.
Because his passport had been taken away, he was unable to visit dying relatives and other family members in South Vietnam, he said.
“When my aunt and my cousin died, I could not go to visit them. My parents have also been sick for a long time, and I can’t visit them either, because [the authorities] won’t return my passport,” Yeang Sothearin said.
“The court has already lifted its supervision of my clients, so there is no need to still keep their passports,” said defense lawyer Sam Chamreurn, also speaking to RFA.
“They are useless to the case anyway,” he said.
'Illegally collecting information'
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin now face charges of “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” under Article 445 of the Criminal Code—an offense punishable by a prison term of from seven to 15 years.
Additional charges were added in March 2018, alleging that the two men had illegally produced pornography.
On Dec. 30, the court rejected an appeal by the two reporters to halt a reinvestigation into the pornography case, allowing a new investigation into those charges to proceed.
RFA closed its nearly 20-year-old bureau in Phnom Penh on Sept. 12, 2017 amid a crackdown by the government that also saw the Supreme Court dissolve the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) a month later.
The move paved the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to sweep the ballot in national elections in 2018, effectively turning Cambodia into a one-party state.
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.
They were released on bail in August 2018, but were placed under a period of court supervision, which barred them from changing their addresses or traveling abroad, and required them to check in with their local police station once a month.
Local and international rights groups and legal observers have long condemned the treatment of the pair in the courts as part of a wider attack on the media and civil society in Cambodia and called for the country's trade and aid partners to press for their release.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Cambodia 143rd out of 180 countries in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Richard Finney.