A court in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh has rejected a request by two former RFA reporters to return their passports and identifying documents after an appellate court ruled last week to continue a reinvestigation into espionage charges against them, according to their lawyer.
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.
In a written verdict dated Jan. 28, which RFA’s Khmer Service obtained a copy of on Monday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigating judge Pich Vicheathor ruled that the court will not return the passports or identification cards of the two former RFA reporters as the reinvestigation into their charges continues.
Pich Vicheathor said that his decision was also made in accordance with recommendations by the prosecutor to dismiss the reporters’ request, which was filed by their defense lawyer, Sam Chamroeun, two weeks earlier in a bid to “reduce the illegal restrictions on their freedoms” after an appellate court removed their obligation of judicial supervision.
Sam Chamroeun told RFA Monday that he does not agree with the judge’s decision, saying that any confiscated items that are not being used as evidence should be returned to their owners, and that refusing to return their documents “seriously affects their ability to seek justice.”
“As of now there is no separate order to restrict their freedoms besides the past verdict that placed them under judicial supervision,” he noted.
“While they are not obligated to be kept under judicial supervision, the judge still decided not to return their passports and ID cards, which serve no purpose as evidence. Such a decision undeniably affects the justice of the case and affects the freedom of my clients.”
Sam Chamroeun said that in more than 15 years of work as an attorney he had never once seen a judge ruling to keep confiscated items that are irrelevant to a case, and especially not when the accused are no longer being kept under judicial supervision.
He urged the court to reconsider and return the reporters’ passports and identification cards immediately.
Speaking to RFA on Monday, Yeang Sothearin said there is no need for the court to hold his documents because they do not constitute evidence of the charges against him and vowed to appeal the decision.
“The judge seemingly does not want to give back our freedom,” he said.
“I am not sure if he is angry with us about a certain issue. The judge should have leniently ruled on our cases and given us complete freedom. There is no advancement in the investigation process. They should have provided us back with our freedom so that we may enjoy our rights as normal citizens.”
Uon Chhin said he is disappointed with the decision, saying it indicates that his freedom remains restricted, despite being out on bail, and adding that he also plans to appeal the ruling.
“I’m very disappointed with this ruling which, in effect, means we both are still under judicial supervision,” he said.
“There is nothing different from being under judicial supervision if our passports and ID cards have not been returned.”
Local rights group and spokesperson for ADHOC Soeung Senkarona said he believes the court’s intent is to restrict the freedom of the two and called the decision a form of “discrimination.”
He said that the court should not keep the documents of the reporters because they have fully cooperated with the court throughout all stages of their trial.
“Their passports and ID cards are no longer necessary for the procedure of the court unless the two intend to escape and not to appear per summons from competent authorities or the court,” he said.
“In complete contrast, we see that the two have shown intentions of good cooperation with authorities and the court.”
Soeung Senkarona urged the court to accelerate a hearing on the merit of their case and if no sufficient evidence is presented, the court should “drop their cases and unconditionally render complete freedom for the two.”
High profile case
The two 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 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 Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.