UPDATED at 11:39 A.M. ET on 2019-12-31
A court in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Monday rejected an appeal by two former RFA reporters to drop a reinvestigation into pornography charges against them, while the pair also await a decision on whether authorities will proceed with a further investigation into accusations of espionage.
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 and charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” after RFA closed its bureau in the capital in September that year.
Production of pornography for distribution, sale or public display under Article 39 of the Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, which carries a maximum prison term of one year in prison and a fine of 2 million riels (U.S. $490), was later added to the charges filed against them.
On Monday, Cambodia’s Appeals Court rejected a request by defense lawyers to quash an order to reinvestigate the pornography charges against them, despite the earlier conclusion of a more than two-year probe.
Speaking to RFA after the ruling, defense attorney Sam Chamroeun expressed disappointment over the decision, saying court investigators had already examined the charges against the two reporters and found no evidence to support them.
“This decision has undeniably affected the rights and freedom of my clients,” he added, calling it “unfair” that their case had “dragged on for so long.”
Sam Chamroeun said he will discuss with the two former journalists whether they would like to appeal the latest decision to the Supreme Court.
Yeang Sothearin told reporters outside the court on Monday that he is “frustrated and disappointed” with the decision.
“Why do they still want to investigate when they haven’t found anything [after all of this time],” he asked.
“Why won’t the [court] speed up the trial instead of dragging it on like this? I think they intend to mistreat us and want to ensure that we are forced to live in such a situation for as long as possible.”
Yeang Sothearin said that while he and Uon Chhin were released from pre-trial detention on bail in August, they cannot enjoy the freedoms of normal people.
“I don’t have full freedom because the case is still hanging over me, so I call on the court to complete it as soon as possible,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of Cambodian rights group Licadho, told RFA that the court has no right to string along the case facing the two reporters without adequate evidence, noting that they have had their movement restricted and been barred from finding employment to support their families.
“Additionally, if this case [drags on], the international community … will continue to criticize and condemn Cambodia for continued abuses of freedom of the press,” he said.
Local and international rights groups have condemned the treatment of Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin in the courts as part of a wider attack on the media in Cambodia and called for their release.
RFA closed its nearly 20-year-old bureau in Phnom Penh on Sept. 12, 2017 amid a crackdown by Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) 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 last year, 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 Uong 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 last year, but were placed under 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.
The two will hear whether the Appeal Court will accept their request to drop a reinvestigation of their espionage charges, which carry a jail sentence of seven to 15 years, on Jan. 20.
Also on Monday, the lawyer of Cambodian Construction Workers Trade Union Federation (CCTUF) president Rath Rott Mony urged Cambodia’s Supreme Court to expedite his client’s case two weeks after formally filing an appeal against his June 2019 sentence to two years in prison for “incitement.”
Attorney Sam Tithseiha told RFA that “no progress has been made” on his client’s case, despite the appeal, and noted that Rath Rott Mony has been “unfairly detained” for more than a year since he was deported from Thailand at the behest of Cambodian authorities.
“The Supreme Court should consider the most important issues related to the accused’s interests, as stated in the Cambodian Constitution’s Article 38 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—that the accused should be sent to a public hearing as soon as possible,” he said.
Rath Rott Mony fled Cambodia for Thailand to seek asylum after helping a visiting crew from Russian state-owned TV network Russia Today (RT) to make a documentary about child prostitution in the country that was broadcast in October 2018. He was arrested by Thai police two months later and handed back to Cambodian authorities.
After a six-month investigation, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered Rath Rott Mony jailed for two years and that he pay 35 million riels (U.S. $8,600) each to plaintiffs Keo Malai and Tep Sreylin, who said he had promised to help them solve a land dispute and open a shop if they made up stories about forcing their daughters into prostitution for the documentary, entitled “My Mother Sold Me.”
Authorities have said the film contained “fake news” and damaged Cambodia's reputation.
RFA was unable to contact Supreme Court spokesman Ouk Kimsethi for comment on Rath Rott Mony’s appeal on Monday.
Licadho’s Am Sam Ath told RFA he expects the Supreme Court to drop the charges against the union leader, and called on authorities to “stop shooting the messenger” when it comes to the issue of human trafficking in Cambodia.
“To be fair and to show the commitment of the authorities to preventing human trafficking, I remain hopeful that the Supreme Court will drop the charges against Rath Rott Mony,” he said.
In June, after he was found guilty, the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia said it was “deeply concerned” by the decision, adding that “his sentencing further erodes the credibility of the Cambodian judicial system.”
The embassy also called freedom of expression “a key component of democratic governance” and said it is “essential” to documenting and raising awareness of Cambodia’s human trafficking problem.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum and Ieng Neang. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.