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Former RFA reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin speak to the media outside of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Aug. 29, 2019. © 2019 Radio Free Asia
(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities should drop the baseless espionage charges against two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists, Human Rights Watch said today. On January 20, 2020, Cambodia’s Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh will hear the arguments from Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin challenging the trial court’s ruling that their espionage charges should be reinvestigated.

“Cambodian authorities have treated the former RFA journalists as criminals by manufacturing a farcical case against them,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The authorities should drop the charges and end the ceaseless judicial harassment of these two journalists.”

A trial judge ruled on October 3, 2019 that there was insufficient evidence to convict Chhin and Sothearin. However, instead of dismissing the case he sent it for reinvestigation. Both journalists face charges of supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defense under article 445 of the criminal code and of producing pornography under article 39 of the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. If convicted, each faces up to 16 years in prison.

On December 30, the appeals court rejected the defense’s arguments against a delay of the verdict on the pornography charges based on the ruling that there needed to be a reinvestigation.

While both journalists were released on bail after nearly one year in arbitrary pretrial detention, they continue to face constraints on their freedom of movement as they are not allowed to leave the country.

Cambodian police arrested Sothearin, RFA’s former Phnom Penh bureau office manager and a news editor, and his colleague Chhin, a former RFA cameraman, on November 14, 2017. Four days later, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged both with espionage. On March 15, 2019, the investigating judge of the Phnom Penh court ordered the case to go to trial.

The authorities have systematically violated the two journalists’ fair trial rights.

The arrests came two months after RFA shut down its Cambodia bureau and local newsgathering operations. RFA alleged that the government systematically harassed its reporters, compelling it to close the bureau. Cambodian authorities accused Sothearin and Chhin of illegally setting up a broadcast studio with the purpose of continuing to file news reports with RFA’s headquarters in Washington, DC.

On May 29, 2019, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that the “violations of the right to a fair trial are of such gravity as to give the deprivation of liberty of Mr. Uon and Mr. Yeang an arbitrary character.” The working group also said that article 445 of Cambodia’s criminal code was not in line with the country’s international human rights obligations because it did not offer a definition of what constitutes an offense under that provision, leaving the authorities with broad and unfettered discretion and creating a risk of  abuse.

On December 25, the politically motivated incitement case against two former Cambodia Daily journalists, Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter, moved to trial. Both journalists left Cambodia after the case arose. The charges stem from 2017, when the two covered stories about the commune elections. The first day of trial hearings was postponed because the assigned judge was travelling abroad.

Cambodia’s press freedom and freedom of expression, both online and offline, came under broad attack by the authorities prior to the July 2018 elections. The Cambodia Daily, one of two remaining independent dailies, was forcibly closed, and the other, the Phnom Penh Post, was  sold to a businessman with ties to the Hun Sen government. Several provincial authorities have informed journalists who cover stories on social justice or corruption issues that they are required to obtain permission to report in their provinces.

The European Union, which has initiated a formal review of Cambodia’s Everything but Arms (EBA) trade preferences, sent the Cambodian government a confidential preliminary conclusion on November 12, that stated, among other concerns, that Cambodia seriously and systematically violated the right to freedom of expression. The conclusion specifically highlighted the case of Chhin and Sothearin.

“The European Union, other foreign governments, and donors should publicly call upon the Cambodian authorities to stop harassing journalists like Chhin and Sothearin and allow independent media outlets to operate freely in the country,” Robertson said.

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