Journalists Uon Chhin, center left, and Yeang Sothearin, center right, are seen at the municipal court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on August 30, 2019. A municipal court judge recently ordered their case to be reinvestigated. (AP/Heng Sinith)

Cambodian court delays verdict, orders new investigation of ex-Radio Free Asia reporters

October 3, 2019 10:00 AM ET

Bangkok, October 3, 2019 -- Cambodian authorities should drop all charges against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin and stop their campaign of harassment against them, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Today, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Im Vannak said he did not have enough evidence to make a decision in the espionage case of the two former reporters for the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia, and ordered state prosecutors to reinvestigate the case and present it to a different judge, according to news reports.

Hearings in the case concluded on August 9; a verdict was originally expected on August 30, but was delayed because the presiding judge said he had other Ministry of Justice obligations, Radio Free Asia reported.

Authorities first arrested Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin on November 14, 2017, on accusations of installing broadcasting equipment in a Phnom Penh guesthouse to secretly transmit news reports back to Radio Free Asia's headquarters in Washington, D.C., as CPJ reported at the time. The pair were held for more than nine months in pre-trial detention before being charged with espionage and producing pornography, and were released on bail, according to CPJ reporting.

“The legal harassment of former Radio Free Asia reporters Yaeng Sothearin and Uon Chhin has gone on for far too long and should stop immediately,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “A new investigation into what were already spurious charges is unacceptable and will continue to cast a shadow over Cambodia’s darkening press freedom situation.”

Both reporters have maintained their innocence on the pornography and espionage charges, news reports said. While on bail, the reporters must make monthly police station visits and have had their passports confiscated, according to a report by The Associated Press.

If found guilty on charges of providing "a foreign state with information which undermines national defense," a charge defined under article 445 of the criminal code, they could each face up to 15 years in prison, according to the AP report.

In September 2017, Radio Free Asia closed its Phnom Penh bureau and suspended its news operations under official pressure related to its registration status, CPJ reported at the time. The broadcaster has maintained that it no longer had ties with the journalists at the time of their arrest and denied they were working on its behalf, according to news reports.

“These delays drag out an unnecessary ordeal that has unfolded for almost two years,” Rohit Mahajan, Radio Free Asia’s director of public affairs, told CPJ by email. “Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, along with their families, have already suffered enough.”

CPJ’s call to the Cambodian Ministry of Justice for comment went unanswered.

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