Cambodian journalists charged with espionage denied bail

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A court in Cambodia on Thursday declined to grant bail to two journalists who have been charged with espionage for filing news reports to a U.S.-funded radio station.

Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, former journalists of the Radio Free Asia (RFA), sit inside a police vehicle as they arrive for a bail hearing at the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

The case of the two, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, has compounded concern about a crackdown on criticism and dissent by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who aims to extend his rule of more than three decades in a general election in July.

“The court denied our appeal,” Keo Vanny, a lawyer for the pair, told reporters after the hearing.

“They upheld the Phnom Penh court decision which continues the pre-trial detention.”

The two used to work for the Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA), which broadcasts in the Khmer language, and which the government criticized for being biased toward the opposition.

RFA shut down its Phonom Penh office in September complaining of a “relentless crackdown on independent voices”, which made it impossible for it to guarantee “the integrity of RFA’s journalistic mission”.

The two journalists have been in pre-trial detention since their arrest in November. They were charged with “providing information that is destructive to national defense to a foreign state” after they were caught filing stories to RFA.

Both men deny the charge against them which carries a prison term of up to 15 years.

“It is very unjust. They intend for us to suffer,” a handcuffed Yeang Sothearin told reporters as police took him away after the hearing.

“The government took revenge on us because we broadcasted the real situation about Cambodia.”

A government spokesman, Phay Siphan, rejected any suggestion the government was taking revenge on the pair, saying: “We cannot accept what he said.”

The reporters were arrested days before the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party after it was accused of plotting to take power with the help of the United States.

The party and the United States denied the accusation.

Hun Sen and his government reject accusation of human rights violations.

Reporting by Chansy Chhorn in PHNOM PENH; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel