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Verdict Set for Cambodians Who Worked for US-Funded Radio

Yeang Sothearin (left) and Uon Chhin, former reporters for Radio Free Asia, walk out from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Phnom Penh, August 9, 2019. (Kann Vicheika/VOA Khmer)

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s presiding judge said the verdict in their case will be announced Aug. 30.

Two Cambodian journalists charged with espionage who had worked for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia said they were hopeful they will go free after their trial concluded Friday.

Rights groups have characterized the case against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin as a flagrant attack on freedom of the press.

They are charged with undermining national security by supplying information to a foreign state, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. They were arrested in November 2017 during a crackdown on the media and political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government during the run-up to the 2018 elections.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s presiding judge said the verdict in their case will be announced Aug. 30.

Prosecutor Seng Heang said in his closing argument that the two had been arranging to secretly send news to Radio Free Asia after it had closed its office in the Cambodian capital in September 2017.

The pair testified two weeks earlier that they had covered news events for RFA after leaving its employment, but they denied any wrongdoing.

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. Their release on bail has been conditional on monthly police station visits and confiscation of their passports, which they say makes it difficult to find jobs.

Lawyers for the defense argued that the reports of their clients did not harm national security or contain any secrets about Cambodia. They said the two reports sent by each man were simply accounts of public events that were openly available.

“We still hope that we will get justice and our charges would be dropped,” Oun Chhin told reporters after Friday’s session.

“I hope that the court will give us justice,” said his co-defendant, Yeang Sothearin.

Radio Free Asia cited “unprecedented” government intimidation of the media when it closed its Phnom Penh office. By the end of 2017, Cambodia’s government had closed more than two dozen local radio stations, some of which had rebroadcast RFA’s programs. The English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily also was forced to close, muting almost all critical media inside the country.

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 aired by radio and television and carried online.

Human rights and press freedom groups have urged that the charges be dropped.

“As long as Cambodia treats journalists like criminals, its reputation as a failed democracy will remain,” Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said last month.