Journalists Uon Chhin, left, and Yeang Sothearin, right, arrive at the municipal court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Oct…
FILE - Journalists Uon Chhin, left, and Yeang Sothearin arrive at municipal court in Phnom Penh, Oct. 3, 2019.

A municipal appeals court in Phnom Penh has upheld a lower-court ruling to continue investigating a pair of former Radio Free Asia reporters on espionage charges. 

Journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, who were detained for “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” in November 2017, had recently filed a motion to have the charges dropped. 

Their attorney, Sam Chamreoun, said Tuesday's decision to reject the motion "overlooks my clients’ interests." 

“We have one month to consider making another request to the Supreme Court,” he said in a statement quoted by the Khmer Times

“We are upset by the decision," said Sothearin after the brief hearing, according to RFA, one of Voice of America's congressionally funded sister agencies. "I think this is a political decision, not a judicial decision. I call on the court to speed up the judicial process to bring our case to trial." 

Bureau closed

RFA's Phnom Penh bureau was shuttered in September 2017 amid a government crackdown on news outlets. The November 2017 charges against Sothearin and Chhin allege the two men installed broadcasting equipment in a private Phnom Penh residence to continue transmitting reports to RFA's Washington headquarters. 

During their nine months in detention, the government also charged the pair with producing pornography before releasing them on bail in August 2018. 

If found guilty of espionage, the men each face a maximum of 15 years in prison under Article 445 of the criminal code. The pornography charges carry up to one year in prison. 

Local and international rights groups have condemned the case as part of a broader crackdown on journalism and civil society in Cambodia. 

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the Cambodian rights group Licadho, told RFA's Khmer service that Tuesday's ruling was "not fair" and reinforced the notion among many Cambodians that "the justice system is biased and has lost public trust." 

Calling for the dismissal of the case, RFA President Bay Fang urged Cambodian authorities to "heed what the international community is telling them: This legal process is deeply unfair and undermines the principles of free expression and respect for a free press that are enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution." 

“Cambodian authorities should stop treating reporters Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin like criminals and drop the bogus charges against them,” said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The longer their legal harassment continues, the more damage will be done to Cambodia’s already threadbare credibility as a democracy.” 

'Up to its old tricks'

Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said that the failure of the court to deliver a conclusive verdict exposed its position on political and civil rights. 

“The Cambodian government is clearly up to its old tricks. Foreign governments should interpret today's inconclusive hearing as yet another signal the Cambodian government refuses to make any concessions on civil and political rights, and fails to respect the principle of media freedom,” he said. “More than ever, this case has been revealed as a crude tool to intimidate and silence other independent journalists in Cambodia.” 

Over the years, Cambodian journalists working for RFA have reported on corruption, illegal logging and forced evictions, among other stories largely ignored by pro-government media. Authorities had already closed independent radio stations carrying RFA reports, using a pretext of tax and administrative violations. 

The arrests of Chhin and Sothearin came after a warning from Cambodia’s Ministries of Information and Interior that any journalists still working for RFA after its office in the capital closed would be treated as spies. 

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranks Cambodia 143rd out of 180 countries in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index. 

Some information for this story came from RFA.