Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Rights Restricted by Court’s Withholding of IDs, Ex-RFA Reporters Say

Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin give the interview to journalists in front of Appeal court after the hearing on 20, January 2020. Camboja

Two former Radio Free Asia journalists accused of espionage said on Monday that their rights and livelihoods were restricted by a court decision to continue withholding their passports and ID cards following their release on bail.

Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who remain on trial after their 2017 arrest and face up to 15 years in prison if convicted, said they have been functionally denied the ability to travel and support themselves financially without official identification. 

Attorneys for Chhin, a former cameraman, and Sothearin, an ex-news editor for the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA), requested that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court return their national ID cards and passports last month.

The court denied their request in an order dated January 28 and seen by VOD on Monday. 

Judge Pich Vicheathor considered the pair’s documents as “in need of investigation,” according to the order.

Last week, the Appeal Court rejected the reporters’ appeal to stop a reinvestigation of their case in which they were charged with supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defense.

Rather than issuing a verdict in October, the municipal court requested another review of the case, citing a “shortfall” in the investigation. They are also charged with production of pornography, which is also being reinvestigated

The men spent nine months in jail before being released on bail in 2018.

Court spokesperson Y Rin told VOD that he needed to see the investigating judge’s order before commenting, but he did not respond to questions later on Monday.

Sothearin, who works as a freelance reporter for VOD, said he had requested his passport to visit family in southern Vietnam and had also sought optometric care abroad. 

“When [a favorable] decision is not given to us, it constrains our freedom and causes other difficulties,” he said.

Chhin said his lack of a national ID was preventing him from opening a bank account, requesting social security benefits and even selling a vehicle.

“I requested to change my motorbike plate but I’ve not gotten it yet,” he told VOD. “I need my identity card to get my motorbike plate and sell it to make a living, but I don’t have [those documents].”

Soeng Senkaruna, spokesman for human rights group Adhoc, said the court was discriminating against the two journalists because they had worked for the U.S.-run news outlet RFA, which shuttered its Phnom Penh office amid government pressure in September 2017. 

During their trial last year, Chhin and Sothearin acknowledged they had filed news reports to RFA even after it closed its local newsroom — though it was not made clear how they had prejudiced national defense by doing so.

Senkaruna urged the court to reconsider returning the men’s IDs because they had fully cooperated with police throughout the investigation.

“This is not standard practice,” he said. “The court doesn’t need to withhold all evidence [in similar cases], so all these documents don’t need to be withheld in this case.” VOD