A court in Cambodia on Friday concluded its investigation into two former RFA reporters accused of espionage, ordering their cases to proceed to trial, and prompting a rights group to call for their charges to be dropped.
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were taken into custody on Nov. 14, 2017 and charged with illegally collecting information for a foreign source, but released on bail nine months later.
The two journalists have since been placed under court supervision, which bars them from changing their addresses or traveling abroad, and requires them to check in with their local police station once a month.
On Friday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge Pech Vicheathor wrapped up his examination of the charges facing the two men and ordered their cases sent to trial.
A date for the hearing has not been set.
Speaking to RFA's Khmer Service on Friday, Yeang Sothearin said he was disappointed that the judge did not drop the charges against him and Uon Chhin.
The court has no evidence linking [us] to any actions that could harm national security, he said.
I'm not worried at all. If the court carries out justice, it will find me innocent.
Sam Chamroeun, the lawyer representing the two reporters, told RFA that Judge Pech Vicheathor had already made his decision to proceed to trial last month, but only issued the order after receiving a court warrant.
He said that regardless of when the trial takes place, he is ready to defend his clients.
Trial Judge Im Vannak was not available for comment about the cases.
RFA closed its nearly 20-year old bureau in Phnom Penh on Sept. 12, 2017 amid a growing crackdown by Prime Minister Hun's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) on the political opposition, NGOs and independent media ahead of national elections in July last year, in what was seen as a bid to silence criticism of his government. The CPP handily won the ballot, securing all 125 seats in parliament.
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.
Call for release
On Friday, Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, told RFA that it is extremely rare for court authorities to drop charges against activists, regardless of whether they have evidence linking them to the crimes they are accused of.
He urged the court to speed up the judicial process and bring the case to trial so that the reporters could receive justice.
I hope the court will drop the cases against both of the defendants so that they can have their freedom back, he said.
Even though they are out on bail, they are being watched by the court, meaning they can't make any long trips and have to regularly report to the police.
In January, more than three dozen journalists in Cambodia published an open letter urging the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to drop all charges against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, saying the accusations against the two are too severe.
The charges intimidate other reporters who are trying to do their work and will negatively impact the freedom of the press in Cambodia as well, the letter said.
Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Cambodia 142nd out of 180 countries in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, down from 132nd in 2017, citing the crackdown on independent media in the lead up to last year's election.
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