Several U.S. lawmakers on Thursday urged Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt to ramp up pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to release two former RFA reporters who have spent seven months behind bars on “espionage” charges.
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were taken into custody on Nov. 14 last year and formally charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source.” They have since had “production of pornography” added to the charges against them and face possible jail terms of up to 15 years if convicted.
The pair deny the charges, but have been denied bail from pretrial detention. No date has been set for the hearing of their case.
On Thursday, eight members of congress—including Cambodia Caucus co-chairs Alan Lowenthal and Steve Chabot—wrote a letter to Ambassador Heidt, calling on him to secure the release of the reporters, who they said were victims of a crackdown on the opposition, NGOs and independent media by Hun Sen to ensure his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) remains in power following a July 29 election.
In addition to dissolving the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November over allegations that its leaders had plotted to overthrow the government, the lawmakers noted that Hun Sen’s regime had also “forced several independent media outlets to close and forced all radio stations to stop broadcasting independent international programming.”
“It is with this repressive atmosphere in mind that we request your attention to the detention of journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin,” the letter said.
“We are aware that the State Department has advocated for them and encourage further efforts to ensure their swift release.”
Last month, The Phnom Penh Post—Cambodia’s last independent daily—was sold for an unknown sum to a Malaysian investor with ties to Hun Sen following the out-of-court settlement of a U.S. $3.9 million claim by the government for alleged unpaid back taxes, prompting an exodus by several senior members of the newspaper’s reporting staff.
The sale of the Post came less than 10 months after the forced closure of the Cambodia Daily, another independent newspaper that was also pressured over claims of unpaid taxes, and the shuttering of several independent radio programs. RFA closed its operations in Cambodia in September amid government pressure.
When police took Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin into custody in November, they initially said they had been detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio. The reporters were later accused of setting up a studio for RFA and charged with espionage under Article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code.
Cambodia’s Ministries of Information and Interior had warned prior to their arrests that any journalists still working for RFA would be treated as spies.
In Thursday’s letter, the members of congress noted that Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were “enduring squalid, cramped conditions” in Prey Sar Prison, and that their families were “very worried about their health and well-being.”
While the two men have been able to retain a lawyer, “concerns are mounting that the government will hold them indefinitely, adding more charges to keep them in jail longer,” the lawmakers said.
“We know you share our concerns and urge you to continue advocating for Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin’s release.”
Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s head of investigations, welcomed the intervention from the U.S. congress and said the journalists should be released immediately and without condition, “as they have not committed the crimes they were charged with.”
“Any appeal for their release is crucial,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service, noting that while it is up to Cambodia’s authorities to release them, “their continued detention only invites more criticism and advocacy for intervention from the rest of the world.”
Thursday’s letter follows multiple statements from local and international rights groups, condemning Hun Sen’s government for its treatment of the two reporters and demanding that they be freed.
Last month, Brad Adams, Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that authorities had “concocted absurd espionage charges” against the pair as part of the government’s “reprisals against RFA for its critical reporting,” and called for their release.
In a separate statement, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) called the charges against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin “a direct assault on freedom of the media and designed to frighten other journalists into silence.”
Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Cambodia 132nd out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, and warned that the Southeast Asian nation is “liable to fall” in next year’s index.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.