Trial of Cambodian reporters who used to work for US begins

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The espionage trial of two Cambodian journalists who formerly worked for a US government-funded radio station began Friday, almost two years after their arrests.

Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin appeared at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to defend themselves against the charge that they had undermined national security by supplying information to a foreign state, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Rights groups have characterized their case as a flagrant attack on press freedom.

The pair, who had already left their jobs with Radio Free Asia, were arrested in November 2017 during a crackdown on the media and political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, ahead of the July 2018 general election.

Radio Free Asia had closed its Phnom Penh bureau in September 2017, citing government intimidation of the media, which it said had reached an “unprecedented level.”

By the end of 2017, the government had closed more than two dozen radio stations, some of which had rebroadcast Radio Free Asia’s programs. The English-language The Cambodia Daily newspaper also was forced to shut down, leaving almost all critical voices inside the country hushed.

Radio Free Asia is funded by an independent US 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 transmitted by radio and television and also carried online.

The former journalists in interviews this week with The Associated Press insisted they have done nothing wrong and hoped the court would drop both the charges against them. Police in March 2018 added a charge of producing pornography, which is punishable by up to a year in jail.

“If the court is independent and the trial is conducted according to the law, we do hope that we will be freed because we have done nothing wrong according to the charges,” Yeang Sothearin said in a phone interview.

“We hope that we will get a good result from the Friday trial and that we will be freed,” Uon Chhin added.

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 charged with espionage.

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