Police officers stand guard near the Supreme Court of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia) has condemned the continued detention, which has now exceeded six months, of two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, since their arrest on November 14, 2017.

They appeared again in court on Wednesday to review their ongoing detention. On Friday, the verdict of that review  was announced: They received an extension of another six months.

After their arrest in November, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were charged with “supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defense,” an offense defined as “espionage” under Article 445 of the Cambodian Criminal Code. If convicted, they could serve seven to 15 years in prison.

The pair were to appeal against their unlawful attention on April 4, but a week before that court hearing, additional charges were filed against them for allegedly producing pornography. They vehemently deny these charges.

The appeal on April 4 was rejected by Cambodian Appeals Court Judge Phou Povsun based on a claim by the police that the two journalists were only held for 42 to 43 hours from November 14 to 16, 2017. However, according to their lawyer, they were only brought to the court prosecutor on November 17, and their detention was therefore in excess of the 48 hours permissible under Article 47 of the 1993 Criminal Procedure Code.

Earlier applications for bail in December, March and April were also denied by various courts on supposed grounds of pending investigations and potential “serious damage” that could be caused by the pair.

Both Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin had been working for the Phnom Penh Bureau of RFA until it was closed down on September 12, 2017, because of repression by the government, threats against reporters, and the closure of its FM broadcasts.

The bureau had been operating in Phnom Penh for almost 20 years. The alleged basis for the arrest of the two journalists was that they were still filing reports to the headquarters of RFA in the United States.

Given that general elections in Cambodia have been scheduled for July 29, arbitrary charges and detentions appear to be one method the authorities are using to try to intimidate journalists

The false allegations against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, the blatant disregard of their rights while in detention, the dubious reasons given for the denial of bail, and the most recent additional charges filed against them are just a few examples of the government’s violations of the fundamental rights of Cambodian citizens to achieve its goals, in breach of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Given that general elections in Cambodia have been scheduled for July 29, arbitrary charges and detentions appear to be one method the authorities are using to try to intimidate journalists, and RFA in particular. Similar harassment and attacks against the media and human-rights defenders can be seen in the forced closure of Cambodia Daily in September last year, the removal of 30 nationwide radio transmissions, and the recent ownership change of the last independent media outlet, the Phnom Penh Post.

Reporters Without Borders has ranked Cambodia at 142, which is 10 positions lower to 2017, out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index released last month.

If the Cambodian government is of a mind to show its commitment to steering the country toward a free and fair election, and ultimately a consolidated democracy, it should afford Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin the due process they are entitled to.

Forum-Asia is calling on the government of Cambodia to drop the charges against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin and release them from such arbitrary detention without cause, especially since six months have passed without any progress or trial date set – and Friday’s verdict has added to the injustice.

If investigations have not managed to reveal sufficient evidence against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, despite the long period that has passed since their arrest, there is no reason for the detention to continue.

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Marte Hellema

Marte Hellema is the program manager communication and media at the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), based in Bangkok, Thailand. Formerly she was the regional coordinator Asia Pacific and program manager public outreach at the Global Secretariat of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC).