Journalists Uon Chhin, left, and Yeang Sothearin, right, arrive at the municipal court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Oct…
Journalists Uon Chhin, left, and Yeang Sothearin arrive at the municipal court, in Phnom Penh, Oct. 3, 2019. A Cambodian court has ordered a new investigation and postponed a verdict in the espionage trial of the two journalists.

PHNOM PENH - Rights groups and the U.S. Embassy on Thursday called for the Cambodian government to drop the charges against two former Radio Free Asia reporters who were arrested in 2017 and released on bail a year ago.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, center, greets his government officers during the country's 66th Independence Day from France, at the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019.

The calls came to mark the second anniversary of the Nov. 14, 2017, arrest of former Radio Free Asia journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin as part of Prime Minister Hun Sen's crackdown on the media, civil society groups and the political opposition before the 2018 elections. The two faced espionage charges, and on Oct. 3, when Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Im Vannak had been scheduled to deliver a verdict after a trial that ended in August, he instead ordered a fresh investigation into hard disk drives seized when they were arrested.

After their arrest, the former reporters were held in pretrial detention until 2018, when they were released on conditional bail, which prevented them from traveling overseas and required them to report to a local police station once a month.

Support for reporters

The U.S. Embassy, in a social media post, said Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin had been subjected to a prolonged trial that impinged on their personal freedoms and affected their personal and professional lives.

"Dropping charges against these journalists and restoring their full rights and freedoms would correct an injustice, honor Cambodia's constitution, and signal a needed commitment to the important role an independent media plays in a democracy," the social media post read. 

Human Rights Watch and the Cambodian Alliance for Journalism also released statements on Thursday, again calling for the charges to be dropped.

"The case against Chhin and Sothearin should have been dropped long ago, but Cambodia's government seems intent on using baseless charges as a warning to other independent journalists," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The never-ending case is part of the government's campaign to silence all critical reporting in the country."

EU report on human rights

The calls for their restored freedoms came days after the European Union Commission completed its preliminary findings into Cambodia's human rights record, which could lead to a suspension of trade preferences attached to Everything but Arms  (EBA), which permits the duty-free export of all products, except for weapons and ammunition, to the EU.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) accessed a copy of the report, which states that the commission observed a further deterioration in Cambodia's human rights situation following the initiation of the investigation in February.

RFA is one of five U.S. civilian broadcast networks that fall under the purview of the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM). The others are Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) with its Radio and TV Martí; the Arabic-language stations Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN); and Voice of America.

The Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin case has been at the forefront of the free-press crackdown in Cambodia, which has also seen the silencing of radio frequencies, shuttering of The Cambodia Daily and the sale of The Phnom Penh Post to a buyer linked to the Hun Sen government.

Effects of investigation

The two former reporters have consistently highlighted the effects of the lengthy investigation on their families, and the limiting effect it has had on employment opportunities. Yeang Sothearin said the charges were unreasonable and that the case has left his family in a constant state of fear.

"I still think that the charges against the two of us have made us political hostages," he said. "Both of us should not be a tool for others. We should be provided justice and liberty."

For Uon Chhin, the psychological and physical exhaustion of the two-year-long ordeal has left his family with a sense of uncertainty, a toll felt most by his children.  

Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin said the calls by civil society to release Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were politically motivated. He added that the court had ordered further investigation to ensure a fair end to the case.

"The judges have not been able to make a conclusion in this case," he said. "So, to ensure fairness for the parties involved, further investigations and proceedings are required," Chin Malin said. "Whether the charges are dropped or not depends on the outcome of the court's investigation."