An appeals court in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Tuesday rejected a request by two former RFA reporters to drop a reinvestigation into espionage charges against them, extending their two-year legal limbo, their lawyer said.
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.
Tuesday's ruling was delivered in a verbal statement , with a written statement to be released to the defense next week, said their lawyer, Sam Chamreoun.
"I will discuss it with my clients. We have one month [to appeal.]"
“We are upset by the decision," said Yeang Sothearin after the brief hearing.
"I think this is a political decision, not a judicial decision. I call on the court to speed up the judicial process to bring our case to trial."
“This strategy of dragging it out mistreats us and hurts our freedom, as we cannot do things like other normal people. We can do nothing but follow the court orders and conduct our legal fight,” said Uon Chhin.
“We appeal to the national and international community to closely watch our case.”
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.
Media freedom deteriorates
Am Sam Ath, the deputy director of the Cambodian rights group Licadho, told RFA's Khmer Service that Tuesday's ruling was "not fair" and reinforced the notion among many Cambodians that "the justice system is biased and has lost public trust."
Calling for the dismissal of the case, RFA President Bay Fang urged Cambodian authorities to "heed what the international community is telling them: This legal process is deeply unfair and undermines the principles of free expression and respect for a free press that are enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution."
"Illegally collecting information for a foreign source,” under Article 445 of the Criminal Code, is 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 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 2018, 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.
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 Paul Eckert.