Cambodian journalists held for 'espionage'

Cambodian journalists held for 'espionage'

A worker paints over the logo of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party at its headquarters in Phnom Penh on Friday after the Supreme Court ordered the party dissolved on what critics of the Hun Sen regime said were spurious charges. (EPA Photo)
A worker paints over the logo of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party at its headquarters in Phnom Penh on Friday after the Supreme Court ordered the party dissolved on what critics of the Hun Sen regime said were spurious charges. (EPA Photo)

PHNOM PENH: Two Cambodian journalists who worked for US-funded Radio Free Asia were charged with espionage on Saturday, the latest targets in an intensifying crackdown on perceived opponents of strongman Hun Sen.

Uon Chhin and Yeang Socheameta were arrested on Tuesday and are suspected of supplying information to a "foreign state", said Ly Sophana, a spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen and its allies in the judiciary have been clamping down hard on critics in recent months, shutting down more than a dozen radio stations and dissolving the main opposition party this week.

The chief judge who read Thursday's unanimous and completely expected Supreme Court ruling against the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) is a senior member of the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP).

In September, Radio Free Asia bureau closed its Phnom Penh office after operating for 20 years, citing government intimidation of the media, which it said had reached an "unprecedented level".

The same month, the independent English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily was forced to shut down after being accused of not paying a huge tax bill -- a charge it said was politically motivated.

The crackdown is seen as part of the Hun Sen government effort to neutralise political opponents ahead of elections next year.

Hun Sen has been in office since 1985 and has held a tight grip on power since ousting a co-prime minister in a bloody 1997 coup.

Although Cambodia, ravaged by the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, is now nominally a democratic state, its institutions remain fragile and the rule of law weak.

Two days after the Supreme Court order, CNRP signs were removed from in the party headquarters in Phnom Penh and offices across the country on Saturday.

But as work ordered by the Ministry of Interior proceeds to eliminate any evidence of the party's existence, international criticism grows over the ban. Thursday's Supreme Court ruling also banned 118 party members from politics.

Party president Kem Sokha was arrested in September in a case widely considered to be politically motivated, while around half of the party's lawmakers have fled the country, fearing arrest.

In a statement released on Friday, the 28-nation European Union said "an electoral process from which the main opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded is not legitimate".

It also warned that "respect of fundamental human rights is a prerequisite for Cambodia to continue to benefit" from preferential trade terms, such as tariff-free access for clothing and textiles to the world's largest unified customs market.

Nearly one million Cambodians work in its garment and footwear industry, one of the largest in the Cambodian economy.

The United States also issued a statement expressing "grave concern about the Cambodian government's dissolution of the country's main opposition party ... based on meritless and politicised allegations".

In the last general election in 2013, the CNRP won 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, against 68 for Hun Sen's CPP.

On Saturday, Hun Sen appeared to ignore the criticism coming from Western governments. Instead, he said that the premier's most important duty is to ensure the safety and security of the nation, make sure Cambodian children have access to education, and to protect the country's businessmen, traders and investors without fear.


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