Cambodia’s Top Court Rejects Appeals by Ex-RFA Reporters, Labor Activist in Blow to Press Freedom

Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected appeals by two former RFA reporters to halt an investigation into charges that they illegally produced pornography, as well as a labor activist seeking to overturn his two-year jail sentence for “incitement,” drawing condemnation from a free speech watchdog.

Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin—who had worked as an editor, reporter and news anchor, and a photographer and videographer for RFA’s Khmer Service, respectively—were taken into custody in November 2017.

They were charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” after RFA closed its bureau in the capital in September that year and were slapped with additional charges for illegally produced pornography in March 2018. If convicted of the first charge, they could face a jail term of between seven and 15 years.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the two reporters to halt a reinvestigation into the pornography case, allowing a new investigation into those charges to proceed as ordered by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. The court did not cite provide any reason for its decision.

Sam Chamroeun, the lawyer representing Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the Supreme Court did not provide his clients with justice in its ruling, which he said was “an abuse of the law.”

He said all parties involved in the case had already agreed the investigation into their case was complete and that the pair should proceed to trial.

“[The court] decision gravely impacts our clients, especially their right to a fair and just trial,” he said, adding that if the court lacks enough evidence to convict them, it should set them free.

Yeang Sothearin told RFA after the decision that that the court “did not give us a just trial.

“If it had taken into consideration how long it took for the prior investigation, the court would have provided us justice,” he said.

Yeang Sothearin suggested that the decision to proceed with an investigation against him and his former colleague was made because “they failed to find evidence against us” during the earlier probe into their espionage charges.

He said that the court was dragging out his case because authorities regard them as “hostages.”

“I would request that the court not look on us as hostages who can be manipulated for its benefit because we are citizens and human beings,” he said.

“Please return our freedom back to us as citizens. It seems the court is trying to seek crimes against us but when they cannot find any, they simply continue investigations. It affects our right to a fair trial.”

Labor activist appeal

Also on Wednesday, the Supreme Court rejected Cambodian Construction Workers Trade Union Federation (CCTUF) president Rath Rott Mony’s appeal of his June 2019 sentence to two years in prison for “incitement.”

Rath Rott Mony fled Cambodia for Thailand to seek asylum after helping a visiting crew from Russian state-owned TV network Russia Today (RT) to make a documentary about child prostitution in the country that was broadcast in October 2018. He was arrested by Thai police two months later and handed back to Cambodian authorities.

After a six-month investigation, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered Rath Rott Mony jailed for two years and fined 35 million riels (U.S. $8,600) each to plaintiffs Keo Malai and Tep Sreylin, who said he had promised to help them solve a land dispute and open a shop if they made up stories about forcing their daughters into prostitution for the documentary, entitled “My Mother Sold Me.”

Authorities have said the film contained “fake news” and damaged Cambodia’s reputation.

Speaking to RFA after Wednesday’s ruling, Rath Rott Mony’s lawyer, Sam Tithseiha, said the court had failed to deliver justice to his client and suggested that sending the case back to an appellant court could lead to him serving more time in detention than his actual prison sentence.

“We are frustrated because the court should not have decided to transfer the case back to the Appeals Court—it will likely delay my client’s detention,” he said.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of Cambodian rights group Licadho’s Human Rights Investigation Team, called the Supreme Court’s two decisions “a blow to freedom of the press.”

He said the two former RFA reporters had committed no crime and echoed Yeang Sothearin’s concerns that the court had failed to gather sufficient evidence to prosecute them.

The Cambodian Journalists Alliance (Camboja) issued a statement Wednesday in which it also condemned the two Supreme Court rulings.

“Camboja believes the decision to reinvestigate the ex-reporters [Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin] is part of a continued campaign of threats and intimidation against press freedom,” the statement said.

Opposition activist

In another ruling on a case related to freedom of speech on Wednesday, the Supreme Court also dismissed an appeal by banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) activist Kong Mas of his 18-month jail sentence for posts he made on Facebook in early 2019 criticizing government policies.

In March, a Cambodian appeals court upheld the Oct. 18, 2019 sentencing of Kong Mas for “insulting the government” and “incitement to commit a crime” based on a Facebook post, which contained comments critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and predicted—correctly—that Cambodia would be the target of European Union trade sanctions for rollbacks on democracy and human rights.

On Wednesday, Cambodia’s top court upheld the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s conviction and sentencing of Kong Mas, prompting his lawyer Sam Sokong to call the decision “unfair and unjust.”

He said his client was innocent of the crimes he had been convicted of, as he had only expressed criticism of the ruling party’s poor governance.

“Kong Mas didn’t commit any crime—he was simply exercising his freedom of speech,” he said.

 

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