The anticipated espionage verdict against two former Radio Free Asia journalists has been delayed after the case’s presiding judge said more investigation into their equipment was needed.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court was on Thursday due to announce its verdict against Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin over allegedly supplying information to a foreign state, as well as a second charge of producing pornography.
Presiding Judge Im Vannak, however, sent the case back to investigation.
“After the trial hearings in July and August, the judge has not found evidence that proves, or an expert that verifies, whether the equipment they used was enough to commit both crimes. We have decided to continue the reinvestigation process,” Vannak told the court, reading from a prepared statement.
Chhin and Sothearin were arrested in November 2017 at Phnom Penh’s Marady Hotel, where Chhin had allegedly set up a studio. They were charged with “supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defense” under Article 445 of the Criminal Code. They have since had production of pornography added to the charges against them and face a prison term of seven to 15 years.
Their arrest came two months after RFA closed its Phnom Penh offices amid pressure from the government. During trial, both journalists admitted to continuing to supply reports that were published by the U.S.-run media outlet in the following weeks, though how that would constitute espionage was not made clear.
Chhin, speaking to journalists outside the court on Thursday, said he was flummoxed by the decision.
“I honestly don’t understand the process. Why have they done this?” he said. “I expected that everything would be clear today — black and white — and we would be able to plan for our future.”
Instead, he said, their case had appeared to have gone backward.
“We have been waiting so long to hear this verdict today.”
He added that the legal actions against him and Sothearin had been ineffective if the goal was to suppress the activities of RFA, which has continued to produce reports about Cambodia from Washington.
“Has RFA stopped their broadcasts? Or stopped reporting about Cambodia?” he asked.
Sothearin also said he was frustrated by the decision to reinvestigate.
“I don’t worry about the investigation as I didn’t commit anything wrong. But the point is the investigation process was so long already. It should be enough for now to announce the verdict today,” he said.
The lack of finality had prevent both journalists from starting new jobs, he added.
“A delay of even one or two days is harmful to people who are seeking justice,” he said. “Freedom is so important for … us as journalists. We need to make a living from our profession as journalists; if the judge keeps delaying to give a verdict it impacts and harms our income.”
The two-year ordeal — including about nine months in jail — had taken its toll on him and his family, he said.
“So please don’t play around with our justice.”
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said she was disappointed by the lack of justice for the two journalists, saying the case affected freedom of expression in Cambodia.
“This case has spent long enough in its investigation process,” Sopheap said.
“It is the judge’s responsibility to find from the evidence whether the suspects are guilty or not. If they can’t find the proof they must drop the charges against them.”