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RFA Journalists Accused of Treason Released on Bail After Nine Months Behind Bars

Two former Radio Free Asia reporters Oun Chhin, center, and Yeang Sothearin, right, hold together as they walk outside the main prison of Prey Sar at the outskirt of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. Two Cambodian journalists who had worked for U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and are charged with espionage have been released on bail, a day after a pardon freed four land rights activists from prison. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

According to an order issued Tuesday evening by Judge Pich Vicheathor, the two journalists will be freed on bail but will have stringent conditions placed on their release.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday ordered two former journalists with Radio Free Asia freed on bail after they spent nine months imprisoned over murky allegations of committing “treason.”

The journalists, Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were arrested in November 2017 at a Phnom Penh hotel, accused of continuing to work for Radio Free Asia even after the news service abruptly shut down its Phnom Penh bureau amid a crackdown on independent media last year.

They denied the accusation, but were subsequently accused of committing treason by “supplying information to a foreign state,” a charge punishable by up to 15 years in prison, and have been detained at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison ever since. Chhin was later charged with producing pornography after police allegedly uncovered lewd digital images during his arrest.

According to an order issued Tuesday evening by Judge Pich Vicheathor, the two journalists will be freed on bail, but will have stringent conditions placed on their release.

“The two of them have to stand by and show up whenever any judge calls for them,” the order says. “They cannot move their house or cross Cambodia’s borders without a permit from the judge. They have to appear at Stung Meanchey police station every first week of the month.”

Y Rin, a spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, confirmed to VOA Khmer on Tuesday afternoon that the court had decided to release the pair on bail, but would not elaborate on the reason for the decision.

Rohit Mahajan, director of public affairs for Radio Free Asia, told VOA in an email that the release was a positive step, although he called for the court to drop charges against the two men.

"This is, of course, a positive development,” he said. “They have suffered, and with them, their families throughout this ordeal. But we hope with their release, the court would also dismiss all charges against them.”

After the ruling Cambodian People’s Party swept all 125 parliamentary seats in July’s national election, there have been several releases of high-profile political prisoners.

In addition to the two journalists, Kim Sok, an analyst who landed in jail after sharply criticizing the government, was released on Friday, while Tep Vanny, one of Cambodia’s best-known land rights activists, was released on Monday night after being pardoned by the king.

The July election was expected to be hotly contested, but instead, was preceded by a ten-month-long crackdown on dissenting voices and independent media that left little room for opposition. Most crucially, the CPP’s biggest competition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was dissolved by a court packed with CPP loyalists, and membership in the party was declared illegal.

The pre-election repression was widely decried by the international community, including some of Cambodia’s most important foreign benefactors.

A number of government officials have been banned from entering the US, while the EU has issued several warnings that it might suspend its Everything But Arms trade deal with Cambodia, which has helped Cambodia sell around a hundred million dollars worth of goods to European countries annually.

Meas Nee, a social researcher, and an independent political analyst suggested that journalists, land activists, and political analysts are now being released because the government is trying to ease down international pressure after the election.

“It is nothing but them trying to reduce the tension, warnings, and sanction on Cambodia government,” he said. “Slowly, they are going for an acknowledgment from the international community, as well as internally.”