Phnom Penh’s Appeal Court on Wednesday rejected an appeal by two imprisoned journalists charged with “espionage”, ruling the circumstances of their arrest and detention were legitimate.
Former Radio Free Asia journalists Yeang Sothearin, 35, and Oun Chhin, 49, were arrested on November 14 on suspicion of reporting stories for the US-funded news outlet, which shuttered its Cambodia operations in September amid a media crackdown.
They were charged four days later with supplying “a foreign state with information which undermines national defence”. If convicted, they face up to 15 years in prison. No trial date has yet been set.
They have also been charged separately for allegedly producing pornography, apparently in relation to widely disseminated photos that purportedly show Chhin performing a sex act, though the identity of the man in the photos can’t be definitively ascertained.
The pair’s lawyer, Keo Vanny, had argued to the court that Chhin and Sothearin had been held for a prolonged time in police detention in violation of the law.
He claimed they were arrested between 8pm and 9pm on November 14 and sent to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor at 3pm on November 17 – a total of 66 or 67 hours.
By law, a person cannot be detained by police without charge for more than 48 hours, although police can apply for that custody to be extended to 72 hours if they have written permission from a prosecutor. Vanny claims police sought no such permission.
Police claimed they held Chhin and Sothearin for between 42 and 43 hours, from November 14 to 16, before they left police custody and were sent to the municipal court.
But on Wednesday, Appeal Court Judge Phou Povsun dismissed the legal challenge and said the arrest followed legal procedures according to the Criminal Code.
Chhin and Sothearin were not present during the closed court session, nor was their lawyer Vanny, but Sothearin’s family appeared.
“I am very upset. He should be released,” said Sothearin’s wife, Lam Chanthy.
Their arrest came in the wake of a broader political and media crackdown in the lead up to the national elections, which saw the imprisonment of Cambodia National Rescue Party head Kem Sokha and the dissolution of the party.