October 3, 2019

Despite lack of evidence, Cambodian judge refuses to drop case against two journalists

Former journalists of Radio Free Asia (RFA) Uon Chhin (R) and Yeang Sothearin (L) arrive at the Phnom Penh municipal court on August 30, 2019. As they were already expecting a verdict, the judge then suddenly canceled the hearing, pretexting he was sick (photo: Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP).
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for an immediate end to all judicial proceedings against two Cambodian journalists – who have been facing long jail terms on trumped-up spying charges for nearly two years – after a Phnom Penh judge today inexplicably ordered a new investigation instead of issuing the expected verdict.

Referring to equipment seized from the two journalists, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, at the time of their arrest, Judge Im Vannak said there wasn’t “enough evidence to prove, or an expert to verify, that the equipment was used to commit a crime." But instead of acquitting them for lack of evidence, he sent the case back to an investigating judge.


Employed by Radio Free Asia until its Phnom Penh bureau was forcibly closed in September 2017, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were arrested on 14 November 2017 for allegedly operating an unlicensed radio station. In a disturbing coincidence, the authorities disbanded the main opposition party two days later, ahead of parliamentary elections.


Two days was also the time that a Phnom Penh court took to decide which law the two journalists had broken. They were finally charged with espionnage, for which they are still facing the possibility of 15-year jail sentences.


“The trial judge himself recognized that the prosecution has absolutely no case and yet he refused to dismiss the charges against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.


“This is clearly the mark of a justice system that does the government’s bidding and, by harassing these two reporters and poisoning their lives, is trying to intimidate all Cambodia journalists. In response to this shocking press freedom violation, we urge Cambodia’s commercial partners, above all the European Union and the United States, to draw the necessary conclusions and to review all existing agreements.”


“A permanent threat”


After RSF referred their case to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were finally freed on bail after nine months in a grim prison called Prey Sar, an experience they described as a “hell on earth” in a moving video they made with RSF in August 2018.


In second video, entitled “A permanent threat,” they talked about the effect of the charges they continued to face after their release, how they were unable to work and how they were unable to travel abroad because their passports had been confiscated.


As he left the court this morning, Uon Chhin said: “I am not afraid of the court conducting a new investigation into our cases, but by doing so it will affect our freedom.” Yeang Sothearin added: “Please do not play with our justice.”


Cambodia is ranked 143rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, after falling 11 places in two years.