Spying charges against Cambodian journalists branded 'ludicrous'

Human Rights Watch calls on court to drop case against former Radio Free Asia pair
Spying charges against Cambodian journalists branded 'ludicrous'

Former Radio Free Asia journalists Oun Chhin (left) and Yeang Sothearin walk out of Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh after being released on bail and placed under judicial supervision on Aug. 21, 2018. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Cambodia has been urged to drop “politically motivated” espionage charges against two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists.

Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin are facing trial on charges that they illegally collected information for a foreign source. The Phnom Penh appeals court will hear arguments on June 21 challenging the decision to place them under judicial supervision.

Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the journalists “are victims of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s unending attack on media outlets that dare air critical reports about the government."

He added: “There’s no basis for the ludicrous charges against these two reporters or for forcing them into judicial supervision. The court should drop both the charges and supervision arrangements immediately.”

After being arrested in November 2017, the men were held in detention for over nine months and were repeatedly refused bail until August 2018 when they were placed under judicial supervision. As a condition of their release, they must report monthly to a local police station and cannot travel abroad, Human Rights Watch reported.

The government arrested the men two months after the RFA shut down its Cambodia bureau and news operations. It claimed that government harassment of its reporters forced it to close the bureau.

The government accused Sothearin and Chhin of illegally setting up a broadcast studio with the aim of continuing to file news reports to RFA’s headquarters in the United States.

RFA has a long history of reporting on corruption, social issues, illegal logging and violations of land rights in Cambodia.

In March 2018, prosecutors brought additional charges against Chhin and Sothearin that they produced pornography.

On May 29, 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.”

In the run-up to the July 2018 elections, PM Hun Sen cracked down on independent and critical voices in Cambodia, targeting political opposition members and supporters, activists, human rights defenders and journalists.

Hun Sen has repeatedly threatened recently to enact a “fake news” law and a cybercrime law. Such new laws would add to the series of repressive laws and amendments passed in the last four years that severely restrict the right to freedom of expression.

The increase in the Cambodian government’s rights violations has led the European Union to consider removing Cambodia’s privileges under its Everything But Arms trade treaty.

“The European Union should be mindful of the trial of Sothearin and Chhin when deciding whether to drop Cambodia from the Everything But Arms trade benefits,” Adams said. “The EU should call for this case to be dropped and all harassment of media outlets and their reporters ended.”

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