On November 14, 2017, Uon Chhin, 49, former Radio Free Asia (RFA) Khmer Service reporter, along with his former colleague, Yeang Sothearin, were arrested under suspicion of espionage in Phnom Penh’s Marady guesthouse. The pair were formally charged and sent to Prey Sar Prison on November 18.
Four desktop computers, one laptop, one sound mixer, speakers, a microphone, and six computer monitors were found during the raid. Chhin denied that he was setting up a system to broadcast news back to the US office of RFA. The equipment was for a karaoke business that he was working on. According to Ly Sophana, a spokesman at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Chhin and Sothearin were charged with “providing information that is destructive to national defense to a foreign state” under Article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code.
RFA in fact closed its Phnom Penh office and suspended its in-country news operations in September 2017 under government crackdown on independent media outlets before the 2018 election. RFA responded that it no longer has any ties to the two journalists after the shutdown, and they were not working on its behalf. Therefore the charges brought in court had absolutely no basis in reality.
In December 2017, Cambodia’s Appeals Court denied bail to Chhin and Sothearin from pre-trial detention in Prey Sar Peison, and the pair were facing a possible jail term of up to 15 years if convicted of the charges against them, according to RFA Report.
On March 16, the Supreme Court denied bail to Mr Chhin and Mr Sothearin, upholding an Appeal Court decision to continue their pre-trial detention.
On March 28, pro-government media have published pixelated images of people in sexual positions and said that Chhin and Sothearin are related to the case, but the accused are not identifiable in any of the images, according to Reuters Report.
The pair was charged with producing pornography by Phnom Penh Municipal Court a day after. This additional charge could carry up to one year of in prison. Executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Chak Sopheap, responded to the pornography event, “This entire prosecution should be seen for what it is: a blatant attempt to limit press freedom, and to silence and intimidate all independent journalists in Cambodia who dare to speak and reveal the truth.”
On August 21, 2018, nearly a month after the Cambodian elections, Chhin was released on bail. RFA President, Libby Liu, welcomed the release, but expressed concern for the state of press freedom in the country, “The targeting and intimidation of anyone who has worked as an independent journalist in Cambodia is a clear violation of press freedom.”
On January 27, 2020, Cambodia’s Appeals Court rejected Yeang Sothearin’s and Uon Chhin’s appeal to drop the reinvestigation into espionage charges laid against them.
Currently, both Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin are out on bail, but they remain in legal limbo after several courts have rejected a series of appeals.