PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A Cambodian judge on Thursday ordered a reinvestigation of the espionage case against two former Radio Free Asia journalists, saying he could not rule on their guilt or innocence without enough evidence.
The case has added to concerns about a crackdown on criticism and dissent by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who extended his rule of more than three decades in an election last year after the main opposition party leader was arrested on treason charges here and his party banned.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Im Vannak had been scheduled to deliver a verdict in the two-year-old case against the reporters, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, but instead he ordered a fresh investigation into hard disks seized when they were arrested in 2017.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) and rights groups said the case should be dropped.
“These delays drag out an unnecessary ordeal that has unfolded for almost two years,” RFA’s spokesperson, Rohit Mahajan, told Reuters.
The two former reporters for Washington-based RFA, a non-profit broadcaster that receives funding from a U.S. government agency, were arrested in November 2017.
RFA had earlier shut down its Phnom Penh office citing a “relentless crackdown on independent voices” which made it impossible for it to guarantee the integrity of its journalistic mission.
The two were charged with providing information “destructive to national defence to a foreign state” after they were caught filing stories to RFA, the court said at the time.
They denied the charges. Their lawyer said they had merely been doing their jobs as journalists.
The arrests came as Hun Sen was fighting a war of words with the U.S. embassy and State Department over his government’s crackdown on the opposition.
The veteran leader has accused the United States of trying to end his rule.
Yeang Sothearin told Reuters outside the court he was disappointed with the judge’s order for more investigation.
“This is another delay of my rights being restricted and freedom being pressured,” he said.
Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia, called on the court to dismiss the case.
“The Cambodian authorities are using trumped-up charges to make an example of two brave professional journalists and to silence anyone else who dares to speak truth to power in Cambodia.”
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said the case “was politically motivated from day one” and should not continue.
“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,” Robertson said.
The opposition has termed Cambodia essentially a one-party state here after Hun Sen’s party won all of the seats in parliament in a 2018 election, after the Supreme Court disbanded the main opposition party.
Authorities have arrested at least 30 opposition activists this year, accusing them of plotting to overthrow the government ahead of the planned return from self-exile of former opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Nov. 9.
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Additional reporting by Kay Johnson in Bangkok; Editing by Robert Birsel