Cambodian judge orders new probe in reporters’ spying case

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) – A court in Cambodia yesterday ordered a new investigation and postponed a verdict in the espionage trial of two journalists who had worked for a United States (US) government-backed radio station.

Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were arrested in November 2017 during a crackdown on the media and opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

They were charged with undermining national security by supplying information to a foreign state, an act punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Judge Im Vannak of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said the investigation had been insufficient. He said electronic equipment confiscated from the defendants would have to be examined again, with the case returned to a new investigating judge.

The men remain free on bail but were disappointed by the ruling. It was the second time in just over a month that they had appeared in court expecting to hear a verdict.

Yeang Sothearin told reporters the court was prolonging their “suffering”.

Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin arrive at the Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. PHOTO: AP

“When I came today, I was strongly expecting that I would get justice from the court or get a clear decision by the court, but that did not happen,” he said.

“I am not afraid of the court conducting a new investigation into our cases, but by doing so it will affect our freedom.”

The ruling comes at a sensitive time for the government as it seeks to ward off the threat of major economic sanctions from the European Union (EU), which is currently considering withdrawing preferential trade tariffs from Cambodia because of its suppression of democratic rights. The US has applied limited sanctions and is under pressure to do more.

Police initially said the two defendants had been detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio. But they were later accused of setting up a studio for Radio Free Asia, which they deny, and were charged with espionage.

Their release on bail a month after last year’s election was conditional on monthly police station visits and confiscation of their passports, which they say makes it difficult to find a job.

A verdict in the case was originally scheduled for August 30, but postponed because the judge had a meeting at the Justice Ministry.

Radio Free Asia closed its Phnom Penh bureau in Sep-tember 2017, citing government intimidation of the media, which it said had reached an “unprecedented level”.