Phnom Penh, Cambodia – A two-year-old espionage case against two Cambodian journalists has been extended yet again, after a Phnom Penh judge on Thursday ordered a reinvestigation claiming there was not enough evidence for him to deliver a verdict.
Former Radio Free Asia (RFA) reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were arrested in a late-night raid in November 2017, during which police found standard reporting equipment like computers and phones.
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They were accused of supplying information to a foreign state, a charge that carries a prison term of between seven and 15 years, and held in detention for nine months before being allowed bail.
The two were expecting a decision – already delayed from August – on Thursday.
Instead, Judge Im Vannak told the court that there “wasn’t enough evidence to prove, or an expert to verify, that the equipment was used to commit a crime.”
He recommended the case be “reinvestigated”.
The decision prompted angry reactions from the defendants and human rights monitors, who argued that if there was not enough evidence, the charges should simply be dropped.
Crackdown on critics
Outside the court, Chhin expressed his disappointment.
“I expected everything would be clear today, black and white, and we could plan for our future,” he said.
“I hoped Sothearin and I would get justice as we have been waiting so long,” he said.
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, attended the hearing and afterwards said the decision was “disappointing”.
“It is the judge’s responsibility to find the evidence that the suspects are guilty or not, but if they can’t find evidence, they must drop the charges against them,” she said.
RFA, which is funded by the government of the United States, closed its operations in Cambodia in September 2017, citing an inability to work under oppressive conditions.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled for more than 30 years, has cracked down on the media and opposition, accusing his critics of plotting a US-backed colour revolution.
During the trial both men said they had sent information to RFA headquarters in Washington, DC after the station had closed down in Cambodia. Both denied that this constituted espionage.
Judge Vannak said some of the evidence wasn’t clear – like why Chhin contacted somebody at the US embassy, for example. The embassy official in question was a public affairs officer whose job was to communicate with journalists.
International human rights monitors have closely followed the case, including the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which found that the initial arrest was arbitrary and violated freedom of expression.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, called today’s decision “ludicrous” and “vindictive”.
“This case was politically manufactured from the start and the judge’s admission there is no real evidence should have prompted the dismissal of the case, not a re-investigation which will plunge these journalists back into a never-ending nightmare,” he said in an email to Al Jazeera.
Trade privileges at risk
The trial is part of a broader crackdown on Cambodia’s media, which saw dozens of independent radio stations shut down, and the two main independent newspapers closed or sold to pro-government owners.
Ear Sophal, a Cambodian-American associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in the US, said the Cambodian government was trying to “thread the needle” by not declaring the men guilty or innocent.
He said they might fear an international backlash over a guilty verdict, but would “lose face” if charges were dropped.
Sophal said the Cambodian government could also be trying to avoid angering the European Union, as it considers cancelling its preferential trade deal, known as Everything But Arms, amid concerns about human rights violations.
“It could be the EBA situation where they know if they take a step across that line their fate is sealed,” Sophal said.
Please do not play with our justice
Both Sophal and Robertson said the decision was a form of harassment meant to scare the defendants and other journalists in the country.
“This is part of the whole structure they employ to intimidate people,” Sophal said.
The decision leaves the men in anxious limbo with the possibility of a long-term prison sentence. Certain freedoms are also restricted, like their ability to leave the country.
“I’m not worried about the investigation, as I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Sothearin, who has been unable to visit his parents who live in Vietnam.
“Freedom is important for all people, especially us as journalists,” Sothearin said, explaining that the endless trial impacts their ability to work, and is harmful to the mental health of both men and their families.
“Please do not play with our justice,” Sothearin said.