A court in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Friday indefinitely postponed the announcement of a verdict in the trial of two former Radio Free Asia journalists charged with espionage and the production of pornography, because the presiding judge had to attend a meeting at the ministry of justice, the reporters' lawyer, Sam Chamroeun, told RFA's Khmer Service.
“I would like the court to announce the verdict soon so that I can have my freedom back,” a disappointed Yeang Sothearin told RFA. Their trial concluded on Aug. 9 and a verdict was expected on Friday.
Yeang Sothearin Uon Chhin were taken into custody in November 2017 and charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” under Article 445 of the Criminal Code. They have since had production of pornography added to the charges against them and face a prison term of from seven to 15 years.
Both journalists have maintained that they are innocent of the charges against them, and say they will be vindicated through the courts, while local and international rights groups have condemned their arrests as part of a wider attack on the media in Cambodia and called for their release.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service after the final session of the trial on Aug. 9, defense attorney Sam Chamroeurn said he had asked in his closing statement that the charges against his clients be dismissed, adding that they “should have never been charged to begin with.”
Also speaking to RFA, Yeang Sothearin said that the prosecutors at trial had never substantiated the charges made against them.
“The prosecutor has failed to provide strong evidence to support the charges. I still hope that the court on Aug. 30 will render justice for us so that we can be free,” he said.
Soeng Senkakruna, a spokesperson for the Cambodian rights group ADHOC, agreed after attending the public hearing that prosecutors had failed to prove their case against the two reporters, adding that their charges should be thrown out and damages paid to compensate them for their time spent in jail.
RFA closed its nearly 20-year-old bureau in Phnom Penh on Sept. 12, 2017 amid the 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, paving the way for the CPP to sweep the ballot last year.
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 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.
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.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders 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 Nareth Muong. Written in English by Paul Eckert.