A court in Cambodia on Friday began trial proceedings against two former Radio Free Asia journalists accused of espionage, with the defendants acknowledging that they had continued to provide information to their past employer after it had closed its bureau in Phnom Penh.
The two denied, however, that the material they had sent to RFA included “state secrets.”
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin 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.
During their hearing on Friday, according to media reports, Uon Chhin told the Phnom Penh Municipal Court that he was building a karaoke parlor when he was arrested after RFA’s bureau closed amid a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media in the lead up to Cambodia’s general election in July last year.
He rejected claims that the parlor was being built for the secret use of RFA and said that while he had sent video clips to RFA’s Khmer Service, they were recordings of incidents that had been widely reported throughout Cambodia and did not concern state secrets. He also stated that he had no connections with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Yeang Sothearin told the court that he had worked on two stories for RFA after leaving the organization, but said they also concerned issues that were reported by local media and known to the public.
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.
Presiding Judge Im Vannak on Friday said he could not understand why Yeang Sothearin would send information to RFA after it had already closed its bureau in the country.
Sam Chamroeun, the lawyer for the two defendants, told reporters after the hearing that Friday’s proceedings had “failed to produce any results,” and that the judge adjourned the trial until Aug 9, when he will make a statement related to the espionage charges and hear evidence to support the accusations of “production of pornography.”
He said Im Vannak had asked questions “with little relevance” to the charges facing his clients, and also rejected his request for the police officers who had arrested the defendants to be removed from the courtroom because they were “intimidating” the defendants.
Uon Chhin told reporters after the hearing that he wants the court to drop his charges and set him free, a sentiment echoed by Yeang Sothearin, who suggested that “based on the judge’s questions, the court does not have enough evidence [against us].”
While the two reporters were released on bail in August last year, they 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.
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.
Their release on bail followed condemnation from multiple local and international rights groups over their treatment during detention, and demands that they be freed.
On Friday, Seung Sengkarona, a spokesman for local rights group Adhoc who monitored the hearing, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Im Vannak “lacked evidence” to find the reporters guilty.
“The charges against the former reporters have been unjustified from the time of their arrest,” he said, adding that the two “didn’t commit any crimes.”
“As journalists, they have the right to take pictures and videos and write stories [even if they are no longer with RFA]. What they did was report on local issues and it had nothing to do with harming national security.”
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of Cambodian rights group LICADHO, who also monitored the trial, told RFA that allowing the police who arrested Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin to be present in the courtroom was affecting the journalists’ state of mind, adding that the two have the right to report on incidents just like any other citizen.
Meanwhile, United Nations human rights experts on Friday issued a statement urging Cambodia’s government to release and drop charges against two men arrested in connection with activities marking the third anniversary of the murder of political commentator and social activist Kem Ley.
Kong Raiya was arrested on July 9 after selling T-shirts featuring the image of Kem Ley and calling on people to wear them at a commemoration service in Phnom Penh the following day, while Suong Neakpaon was arrested at the event for distributing leaflets that read “End extrajudicial killings.”
Both men were charged with “incitement to commit a felony.”
“We are concerned about the arrest, detention and criminal charges brought against Kong Raiya and Suong Neakpaon,” said the experts, who included Rhona Smith, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia.
“According to information we have received, Kong Raiya and Suong Neakpaon were engaged in the legitimate exercise of their freedom of speech and Suong Neakpaon was about to participate in a peaceful commemoration ceremony. We are concerned that, yet again, the authorities are targeting free speech and peaceful assemblies.”
The experts called on the government to reverse what they called “the current downward trend in enjoyment of fundamental freedoms” in Cambodia, saying that open discussions promote the ideas, creativity, and debate necessary for the country’s sustainable development and lasting peace.
They also expressed concern that after three years “there has been no apparent independent and impartial investigation” into the murder of Kem Ley.
Kem Ley was shot to death in broad daylight on July 10, 2016 while having a morning coffee at a Caltex gas station in the capital Phnom Penh, days after publicly criticizing Hun Sen and his family for abuse of power and unexplained wealth.
Authorities charged a former soldier named Oeuth Ang with the murder and sentenced him to life in prison in March 2017, but many in Cambodia do not believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt. In May, Cambodia’s Supreme Court rejected Oeuth Ang’s appeal for reduction of sentence and upheld his life imprisonment term.
“We are concerned at the apparent failure to conduct adequate investigations to clarify Kem Ley’s murder,” the experts said.
“We call on the Government to commission an independent body to undertake a transparent and impartial investigation as soon as possible,” they added, calling for international assistance in the process.
The experts also urged the government to “take immediate and meaningful action to protect the safety of journalists who are attacked for exercising their right to freedom of expression” in Cambodia, citing the charges against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin.
Attempts by RFA to reach Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin for comment in response to the U.N.’s statement went unanswered on Friday.