Phnom Penh, 04 October 2019 - We,the undersigned civil society organizations strongly condemn the decision bythe Municipal Court judge to continue the investigation into unsubstantiated espionagecharges against Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin. The pair werearbitrarily arrested, detained and charged for the peaceful exercise of theirfreedom of expression and for their work as investigative journalists on issuesof social justice. Yesterday’s hearing showed that there is a complete lack ofevidence in support of these baseless charges exposing fair trial rightsviolations and highlighting the trial as a blatant affront to freedom ofexpression and media freedom in Cambodia. We urge the authorities toimmediately drop all charges against the pair.
Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin,former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists, were arrested on 14 November 2017 anddetained in Prey Sar prison. They were provisionally charged four days laterwith ‘supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to nationaldefence’, under Article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code. The pair – who workedfor RFA’s, now closed, Cambodia bureau – were denied their first bailapplication on appeal before the Supreme Court on 16 March 2018 and soon afterwardswere charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with the alleged production of pornographyunder Article 39 of the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation.As a result of the accumulated charges, each face 16 years in prison. On 21August 2018 they were both released from Prey Sar prison on bail, after morethan nine months in pre-trial detention, however remain under judicialsupervision.
The original verdict hearingwas scheduled for 30 August 2019 but on the morning of the hearing it wasdelayed due to an unannounced absence of the judge. It was subsequentlyscheduled for 03 October 2019, however the Phnom Penh Municipal Court againfailed to deliver a verdict on the grounds that further investigation wasrequired. The failure to reach a verdict is indicative of a lack of credibleevidence against the pair and as such illustrates that there is insufficientevidence to hold them criminally liable as per the burden of proof standardsenshrined in Article 38 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia(Constitution). Throughout the process of their arrest, detention, and ongoingtrial, Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin have been denied the rights to fair trial,liberty and security protected under domestic and international human rightslaw.
Article 9(1) of theInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), incorporated intodomestic law by the Constitution, states that ‘no one shall be deprived of hisliberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedures as areestablished by law.’ Article 14 thereafter preserves the rights to ‘be entitledto a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunalestablished by law’ and to presumption of innocence. The charges levelledagainst Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin are unsubstantiated and lack a clearlegal basis. Instead, they have been employed as a means to punish thelegitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and silencejournalism critical of the government. The pair had previously reported on awide range of human rights issues.
In addition to baselesscharges, the holding of these two men in pre-trial detention in deplorable conditionsfor more than nine months, and their continued placement under judicialsupervision of already 12 months, violates their right to liberty and to a fairtrial guaranteed under international law and the Constitution. Internationallaw stipulates that people charged with criminal offenses should not, as ageneral rule, be held in custody pending trial - a requirement not adhered toin Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin’s case.
In May 2019, the UnitedNations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion on the case, findingthat the Cambodian government had failed to (1) establish a legal basis forarrest and detention, and (2) provide proof that it had considered alternativesto pre-trial detention. Concluding that the pre-trial detention of thejournalists resulted from their peaceful exercise of the right to freedom ofassociation and the freedom of expression, the Working Group found theirdeprivation of liberty to be arbitrary.
The prosecution of YeangSothearin and Uon Chhin is but one piece of the broader legal assault on journalists,human rights defenders, members of the political opposition, union leaders,activists, civil society representatives and individuals expressing their viewson matters of public interest, including expressions of critical dissent. Whilethe situation of press freedom was already constricted prior to 2017, sincethen Cambodia has seen almost all of its independent and local media silenced.Critical Khmer-language media outlets have had their activities severelyrestricted, including via the closure of 32 radio stations relaying RFA, Voiceof America (VOA) and Voice of Democracy (VOD). RFA closed its Cambodia bureauin September 2017, citing the repressive environment and ongoing harassment oftheir journalists. The change of ownership of the Phnom Penh Post in May2018, Cambodia’s last remaining independent English-Khmer language daily, waswidely regarded as the last blow to press freedom in Cambodia. The space forfreedom of expression online is also severely curtailed, illustrated through the increase in harassmentof individuals who merely peacefully dissent or express their opinions throughshares, posts or likes on Facebook.
The right to freedom ofexpression, protected by Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 41 of the Constitution,is essential for the guarantee of the exercise of all human rights, includingthe rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom ofinformation, and the right to develop one’s personality and private life. Assuch, the importance of creating an enabling environment in which journalistsare free to conduct their work – including by exposing corruption, expressingdiverse viewpoints and shedding light on human rights violations – cannot beunderstated.
The failure to vacate thecharges against Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin strikes yet another blow againstwhat little remains of freedom of expression and media freedom in Cambodia. Thiscase sends a clear warning to individualswho dare to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression andfosters an environment of intimidation and censorship. The legitimate andinvaluable work of these individuals should be recognized, in line withCambodia’s human rights obligations, and they should be able to carry out theiractivities in the future without fear of reprisal, obstruction or threat ofprosecution. We encourage the Royal Government of Cambodia to cease itsintimidation and harassment of all individuals exercising their right tofreedom of expression and to re-establish an enabling environment for a freeand pluralistic media and a thriving civil society in line with its obligationsunder the Constitution and international human rights law.
- END –
This joint statement isendorsed by:
1. Alliance forConflict Transformation (ACT)
3. Article 19
4. ASEANParliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
5. Asian Forum forHuman Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
6. Asian Network forFree Elections (ANFREL)
7. CamAsean Youth’sFuture (CamASEAN)
8. Cambodian Centerfor Human Rights (CCHR)
9. Cambodian Centerfor Independent Media (CCIM)
10. Cambodian Food And Service Workers Federation(CFSWF)
11. Cambodian HumanRights and Development Association (ADHOC)
12. CambodianIndependent Teachers’ Association (CITA)
13. CambodianVolunteers for Society (CVS)
14. Cambodian YouthNetwork (CYN)
15. Center forAlliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL)
16. CIVICUS: WorldAlliance for Citizen Participation
17. Coalition forIntegrity & Social Accountability (CISA)
18. Committee for Freeand Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL)
19. Community LegalEducation Center (CLEC)
20. Human Rights Watch(HRW)
21. Independent Democracy of Informal EconomyAssociation (IDEA)
22. Independent TradeUnion Federation (INTUFE)
23. IndradeviAssociation (IDA)
24. InternationalCommission of Jurists (ICJ)
25. InternationalFreedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX)
26. Khmer KampucheaKrom for Human Rights and Development Association (KKKHRDA)
28. Labor RightsSupported Union of Khmer Employees of Naga World (L.R.S.U)
29. Minority RightsOrganization (MIRO)
30. People Center forDevelopment and Peace (PDP-Center)
31. Ponlok Khmer (PKH)
32. Reporters WithoutBorders (RSF)
33. Sahmakum TeangTnaut (STT)
34. Urban Poor WomenDevelopment (UPWD)
35. World OrganisationAgainst Torture (OMCT)
36. Youth Educationfor Development and Peace (YEDP)
37. Youth ResourceDevelopment Program (YRDP)