PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The espionage trial of two Cambodian journalists who formerly worked for a U.S. government-funded radio station began Friday, almost two years after their arrests.
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin testified at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to defend themselves against the charge that they had undermined national security by supplying information to a foreign state, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Both men acknowledged in court that they had covered news events after leaving the employ of Radio Free Asia, but they denied any wrongdoing.
Rights groups have characterized their case as a flagrant attack on press freedom.
They were arrested in November 2017 during a crackdown on the media and political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, ahead of the July 2018 general election. Radio Free Asia had closed its Phnom Penh bureau in September 2017, citing government intimidation of the media, which it said had reached an “unprecedented level.”
By the end of 2017, the government had closed more than two dozen radio stations, some of which had rebroadcast RFA’s programs. The English-language The Cambodia Daily newspaper also was forced to shut down, leaving almost all critical voices inside the country hushed.
RFA is funded by an independent U.S. government agency and says its mission is “to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press.” Its programs are transmitted by radio and television and also carried online.
RFA spokesman Rohit Mahajan said in an email that the two 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,” he said.
Police initially said the two had been detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio. But they were later accused of setting up a studio for RFA, which they deny, and were charged with espionage.
Uon Chhin testified that his contract had ended and he was building a karaoke studio when he was arrested, but denied allegations that it was meant for the secret use of his former employer. He said he sent the video clips at the request of his former boss, and they concerned openly available news, not state secrets. He also said he had never known or had any contact with any agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Yeang Sothearin also admitted working on two stories after leaving RFA’s employ. He said he didn’t realize it would get him in legal trouble, because it was simply news already known to the public.
The judge expressed skepticism over his action, questioning why he would send information when Radio Free Asia had already shut down its office in Cambodia.
Speaking to reporters after the court session, Uon Chhin said he always hopes the courts will drop the charges “and give me back my full freedom.”
The two were released on bail a month after the 2018 election, their release conditional on monthly police station visits and confiscation of their passports.
The next session of their trial is scheduled for Aug. 9.
The election was swept by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party in a vote widely seen as neither fair nor credible because the pro-government courts had dissolved the main opposition party in November 2017.
Hun Sen has been prime minister since 1985 and has a record of cracking down harshly when facing a serious challenge, then effecting reconciliation when he no longer feels threatened. The pattern has generally kept human rights groups and Western governments off balance and moderates their criticism.
However, the 2017 crackdown and failure to hold a free and fair election sparked outrage in Western nations, which began to enact political and economic sanctions against Hun Sen’s government as relations failed to rebound.
“The fabricated case against the ex-RFA journalists is intended as a strike against media that dares to criticize the Cambodian government,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said this week. “Chhin and Sothearin should never have had to face these bogus espionage charges, and all judicial restrictions on them should be lifted.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the surname of the Radio Free Asia spokesman to Mahajan instead of Mohajan.