A former Radio Free Asia journalist on trial for espionage was accused on Friday of delivering secret information to the U.S. Embassy.
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin worked for RFA’s Khmer-language news service until the U.S.-funded media outlet shut its Phnom Penh bureau on September 12, 2017, citing government pressure and the forced closure of FM radio stations carrying its broadcasts.
Both were arrested in Phnom Penh’s Marady Hotel in November 2017 and accused of sending intelligence reports to the U.S., an allegation they deny.
They spent nine months in pretrial detention before being released on bail last year.
Three penal judges presided over the espionage case against Chhin and Sothearin on Friday. Their lawyers requesting that charges related to pornography be delayed to the next hearing, and the judges scheduled a hearing for the pornography charges on August 9.
Chhin said he began working with RFA in 2007, undertaking work as both a videographer and reporter. He received a salary of $1,100 per month from around 2009 until the radio service closed its Phnom Penh newsroom in 2017, he said.
He said that after RFA closed its Phnom Penh office, he sent two video clips, one about an Information Ministry press conference and a second about people protesting for the release of former opposition leader Kem Sokha.
“I sent them to RFA through [Khmer news service director] Sam Poly, and I think that they are normal videos because they do not affect Cambodia’s security,” Chhin said.
Chhin said that after RFA’s office was closed, he rented a room at the Marady Hotel for $210 per month because he want to open a studio to cover “the entertainment world.”
“It was an important goal for me: I wanted to open my own studio for entertainment, because I love singing and can earn money by filming videos at all sorts of ceremonies,” Chhin said.
“But I did not have a license yet, because I was asking the ministry about a license for this studio,” he added. “I swear on my life that I wanted to open a studio and did not have any bad intentions.”
When deputy prosecutor Seng Heang asked him where RFA received its funding, Chhin responded that he was not sure but that it possibly came from the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives.
Heang asked Chhin whether he had been in contact with U.S. Embassy information officer Chrea Vannarith.
Chhin answered that he had taken a disk containing RFA documents to the U.S. Embassy via Vannarith, and said Vannarith was in contact with all journalists.
After Chhin’s questioning, Sothearin told the court that he had worked at RFA since 2013, first as a reporter and later as editor-in-chief.
“I acknowledge that I sent two articles to RFA during the week after RFA was shut,” Sothearin said. “The first article I don’t remember, and the second article was about Sam Rainsy’s message posted on his Facebook page about the political situation in Cambodia.”
Sothearin asserted that filing news articles should not be considered a crime.
“I think the articles being sent to RFA is not a problem, because it is public news. All people also knew about this news,” Sothearin said.
He noted that he was asked by RFA help to write more stories for them, but had told them that he could not write for RFA since it did not have an office in Cambodia any longer.
“I was arrested along with brother Chhin when he called me to help with police officials who were checking on his rental room at the hotel,” Sothearin said.
Men Hengtith, chief of Phnom Penh police’s internal security bureau, told the court that on November 14, 2017, Meanchey district police officials had received information that RFA reporters had rented a room from which they were secretly sending news to a foreign country.
“I arrived there, and I saw our police officials were writing notes on confiscated equipment,” Hengtith said.
Information Ministry officers had evaluated the equipment as being for news dissemination rather than an entertainment studio, Hengtith said.
Lieutenant General Sam Vanvirak, director of the Interior Ministry’s internal security department, backed Hengtith’s testimony, saying the room was being used for news production.
“It was being disseminated secretly, and there is evidence that we have sent to the court already,” Vanvirak said.
The evidence was related to the disk that Chhin had delivered to the Vannarith at the U.S. Embassy, he said. The disk was suspected of containing secret information for the embassy, Vanvirak said.
“I think that they have been caught red-handed,” he said.
The hearing was adjourned until August 9 after four hours.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager for human rights group Licadho, repeated his call for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to drop the case against Chhin and Sothearin, saying nothing divulged at the hearing showed any threats to national security.
The U.S. Embassy declined to comment, saying the trial was still ongoing.
On June 21, the Appeal Court rejected applications by the former RFA journalists to annul their court supervision and return their belongings, which were confiscated by police officers upon their arrests.
Rohit Mahajan, vice president of communications and external relations at Radio Free Asia, also called for an end to the court actions in a statement issued on Wednesday.
“Former Radio Free Asia journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin have already suffered nine months of imprisonment and now face unsubstantiated charges, which never should have been brought forward in the first place. The Phnom Penh Court Municipal Court can rectify this unnecessary and troubling situation by dismissing the case and all charges against them without delay,” Mahajan said.